U.S. takes seat at U.N. rights forum, urges unity

The United States on Friday took up its seat for the first time on the U.N. Human Rights Council, vowing to be a strong advocate for people worldwide who suffer abuse and persecution, Reuters reported.

In a policy shift, the Obama administration sought and last month won an elected seat at the 47-member Council, which the previous government had shunned over what it called its "rather pathetic record" and frequent scrutiny of U.S. ally Israel.

Washington said it would use its new voting power at the three-year-old body "to be a tireless defender of courageous individuals across the globe who work, often at great personal risk, on behalf of the rights of others."

"For our part, the United States hopes to reinforce the ability of this Council to speak with one voice about situations that are an affront to human dignity," Mark Storella, charge d'affaires at the U.S. diplomatic mission to the United Nations in Geneva, said in a speech.

The Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 to replace the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which critics said allowed China and other countries to escape scrutiny for years while often singling out Israel for censure.

But even in the new forum, African and Islamic countries have often voted together as a majority bloc, with the backing of China, Cuba and Russia, whose own records are regularly denounced by leading activist groups.

The Council has also slowly eliminated the U.N. human rights monitors assigned to particular countries over the past three years, dropping watchdogs for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Belarus and Liberia.

On Thursday, the Geneva-based body decided in a narrow vote to keep an investigator in Sudan for another year, overcoming calls from African states to stop monitoring the country whose six-year Darfur conflict has killed an estimated 300,000 people.

The United States played a key behind-the-scenes role in negotiating the text ultimately adopted, diplomats said.

Storella said Washington wanted to ensure that violations are confronted with more unity in the Council's regular reviews of all 192 U.N. member states, as well as in emergency sessions looking at acute crises.

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