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US won't seek seat on UN panel for human rights

UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration will not seek a seat this year on the new UN Human Rights Council, marking the first time in more than a half century that the United States has chosen not to pursue membership on the United Nations' principal rights organization.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the United States would be an observer on the UN council and would probably run for a post next year -- assuming the 47-member agency proves its commitment to promoting human rights. Council advocates and some Republicans in Congress said the decision would deprive the United States, which has been at the forefront of UN human rights efforts for five decades, a chance to shape the new council.

The decision unveiled yesterday was influenced in part, officials said, by concerns that the United States might have failed to win one of the seven seats reserved for Western governments. The United States has faced sharp criticism for alleged abuses of terrorism detainees. Meanwhile, Cuba and China, which have troubled human rights records, stand a strong chance of winning election to the council by secret ballot in May, according to senior US and UN diplomats.

The Human Rights Council was established last month to replace the Human Rights Commission, which had been derided in recent years for allowing countries with abysmal rights records, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, to join and thwart criticism of their actions. The United States, which was voted off the commission for one year in 2001, has always sought membership in the agency since its creation in 1946.

US policy on the new rights council has shifted from outright opposition to qualified support, reflecting division within the administration. That internal debate has pit some of the council's sharpest critics against those who believe that American engagement would strengthen the United Nations' ability to restrain the world's most abusive despots.

The Bush administration was one of only four countries to vote against the March 15 resolution that created the rights council, arguing that the resolution failed to set high enough standards to block abusers from joining. At the same time, the United States agreed to help fund the reformed agency and support its goal of holding abusers to account.

In announcing the decision not to join for now, McCormack said the United States remains committed to supporting the council ''politically, diplomatically, as well as financially."

''The United States will actively campaign on behalf of candidates genuinely committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and which will act as responsible members of this new body," McCormack added. ''We will also actively campaign against states that systematically abuse human rights."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan joined human rights groups in expressing disappointment at the US decision. But he expressed hope that Washington ''will continue to support" the council.

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