Image: Esther Brimmer
Salvatore Di Nolfi  /  AP
Esther Brimmer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, center, delivers her speech during the 12th U.N. Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
updated 9/14/2009 3:30:14 PM ET 2009-09-14T19:30:14

The U.S. attended its first formal meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council as a member Monday, saying it will try to promote dialogue at a body it once avoided and heavily criticized.

The U.S. was elected in June to the 47-nation council, which was criticized by the Bush administration for primarily denouncing Israel while ignoring abuses elsewhere. Washington left its observer seat on the council vacant during the last six months of President George W. Bush's second term.

"We will strive for discussions that are thoughtful, focused and open to all viewpoints and perspectives," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer told the council.

The decision in May to seek a seat on the Geneva-based body after three years of staying on the sidelines was a major shift in U.S. policy in line with President Barack Obama's stated aim to closer cooperate with the United Nations.

No mention of Israel
Brimmer did not mention Israel or the earlier U.S. boycott of the council but she echoed remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week that upholding freedom of speech and combating intolerance and discrimination are priorities for the U.S.

The council in March approved a proposal by Muslim nations urging passage of laws around the world to protect religion from criticism — a move that drew strong criticism from free-speech campaigners and liberal democracies.

The council is dominated by African and Asian countries, who have blocked criticism of allies such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Sri Lanka while passing a series of resolutions critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Since its creation three years ago, the council has held five urgent meetings on Israel alone. There have been only four such meetings on other country-specific situations, including Myanmar, Darfur, Sri Lanka and Congo.

Although the rights council is virtually powerless compared to the U.N. Security Council, its decisions carry considerable symbolic weight, particularly in the developing world, to which the Obama administration wants to reach out.

Human rights record is ‘imperfect’
Western countries, human rights groups and senior U.N. officials have warned that the council needs to improve its work if it wants to avoid the fate of the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission it replaced in 2006.

Brimmer, who acknowledged that the U.S.' human rights record is "imperfect," called on council members to try to "end this session with a more strengthened and robust human rights mechanism than we had before."

Juliette de Rivero, a spokeswoman for New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said that the real test would come when the council debates a report on human rights abuses during Israel's assault on the Palestinian territory of Gaza earlier this year. Criticism of its ally by the council was one of the main reasons the former administration withdrew from the council in June 2008.

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