Human Rights Council polls and popularity of nations
NEW YORK - When India ran against Japan for a non-permanent seat in the 15-member UN Security Council back in October 1996, it suffered a humiliating defeat. The vote was a whopping 142 for Japan and a measly 40 for India. By UN standards it was a disaster. When a UN correspondent asked visiting Opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee for his reaction, the onetime Indian Prime Minister made the telling comment: "The defeat was shocking. The margin was devastating."

Since the voting was by secret ballot, most of the countries that pledged their votes, including in writing, obviously reneged on their promises. Japan, on the other hand, using its economic clout and increased aid pledges succeeded in garnering more votes at the expense of India. As a result of the defeat, the speculation at the UN was that the Indian ambassador who was expecting an extension of his term of office never got one.

Perhaps it is a truism in the UN community that the political fortunes of most ambassadors rise and fall on the successes and failures in getting his or her country into UN bodies, including the highly-competitive Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and now, the newly-created Human Rights Council.

The survival of an ambassador as Permanent Representative of his home country may be predicated on the number of votes he could generate at UN elections. If you have a record of three or four consecutive defeats, the reflection is not so much on the home government as the person who represents that government at the UN.

If, on the other hand, you have a string of successes under your belt, you may well be a strong candidate for an extension of your term of office — or be a real "Permanent" Representative for life.

India, one of the world's nuclear powers and self-styled superpower in the region, redeemed itself when it was elected to the Human Rights Council last week with the highest number of votes for the Asian slate of candidates: 173, compared with Bangladesh (160), Pakistan (149) and Sri Lanka (123). Asked for his comments, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nirupam Sen told an Indian reporter rather gleefully: "It is poetic justice that the largest democracy (in the world) should have the largest pool of votes."

Although Pakistan, the traditional rival, also succeeded in getting a place in the new Human Rights Council, it was unhappy that it got 24 votes less than India. The voting pattern also appeared to undermine Pakistan's efforts to block India from being a permanent member of the Security Council. The elections for the Human Rights Council were viewed by some diplomats as a political barometre for the proposed expansion of the Security Council: a proposal that is currently in limbo because of sharp division among the 191 member states.

All four countries aspiring for permanent seats in the Security Council — India, Brazil, Japan and Germany — were elected to the Human Rights Council. Of the four, India received the largest number of votes compared with Brazil (165), Japan (158) and Germany (154).

After last week's elections, a Third World diplomat was quoted as saying: "The vote on the Human Rights Council is not exactly the same as a vote on the Security Council expansion issue." But the voting outcome gives "a fairly realistic indication" of how these countries will probably fare should there be a vote on Security Council expansion, he added.

Sri Lanka succceeded in edging out Thailand (120 votes) and Lebanon (112), even though both countries received the required 96 votes to be in the Human Rights Council. But a sigificant feature of the elections was the political unity among the 53 African states that comprise the African Union (AU).

Unlike other regional groups, the Africans fielded only 13 candidates for the 13 seats they were entitled to. So all 13 candidates were voted into office. The Asians had 18 candidates for 13 seats. Africa's collective unity also helped them to get the largest number of votes. In overall voting for the Human Rights Council, the eight largest vote getters were all from Africa, the top three being Ghana (183 votes), Zambia (182), Senegal (181).

In an obvious rebuke to Western nations and human rights organisations, the 191-member General Assembly also voted in favour of seven of the eight countries described as "human rights violators" — Russia, China, Cuba, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The only exception was Iran, which failed to muster the necessary votes — receiving only 58 out of the required minimum of 96. A total of 63 candidates vied for 47 seats in the Council.

The US, which has been lambasted for human rights abuses both by members of its armed forces in Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and by American law enforcement officials in the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba, backed out of the hotly contested race.

The widespread speculation at the UN was that the US decision may have been prompted by lingering fears it will not be able to muster the 96 votes needed in the General Assembly.

As one diplomat put it: "If the United States contested and lost, it would have been a resounding public slap for a country which is a self-styled promoter of human rights but which still justifies abuses in the name of fighting terrorism."

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