updated 2/8/2005 5:14:19 PM ET 2005-02-08T22:14:19

The State Department on Tuesday denounced the selection of Cuba and Zimbabwe for a panel that will decide on the agenda for a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission next month.

“The United States believes that countries that routinely and systematically violate the rights of their citizens should not be selected to review the human rights performance of other countries,” said Tom Casey, a spokesman for the State Department.

Besides Cuba and Zimbabwe, the other members of the so-called Working Group on Situations are Hungary, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

“Despite the inappropriate membership of Cuba and Zimbabwe, we look for the working group to conduct its procedures in a balanced and transparent manner,” Casey said.

Casey’s statement offered no criticism of the selection of Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian monarchy. Officials noted, however, that a reform movement was under way in the country, highlighted by village elections set for this week.

Gatekeeper for human rights complaints
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listed Cuba and Zimbabwe among six “outposts of tyranny” during her Senate confirmation hearing last month.

The working group passes judgment on the admissibility of complaints intended for consideration by the 53-member commission. The group meets every March at its headquarters in Geneva.

Cuba was selected to the working group based on the support it received from fellow Latin American countries. The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s Web site said Argentina proposed Cuba for membership.

The show of hemispheric support for Cuba was a setback for the Bush administration in its campaign to isolate Cuba internationally.

Last week, ignoring administration objections, the European Union lifted a suspension on high-level contacts with Cuba that was imposed after a crackdown on dissidents in 2003.

Cuba’s official news agency, AIN, said that among the cases being considered by the commission this year were “the well-documented atrocities committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, particularly the brutal procedures used against prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail and at the prison camp set up at the illegal U.S. naval base located in the eastern Cuban province of Guantanamo.”

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the America’s Division of Human Rights Watch, reacted sharply to Cuba’s selection.

“I think it’s a scandal,” Vivanco said. A country with “such a poor record on human rights” should not be rewarded in this way,” he said.

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