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In reversal, U.S. to join U.N. rights council

NEW YORK (JTA) — The United States will seek to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing its policy of shunning the group and prompting concern among some Jewish organizations.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced it would participate in May elections for a seat on the 47-member council, "with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights." The Bush administration had withheld U.S. membership from the Geneva-based council for its failure to confront human rights abusers and its singling out of Israel for condemnation.

"The United States helped to found the United Nations and retains a vital stake in advancing that organization’s genuine commitment to the human rights values that we share with other member nations," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement announcing the decision.

JTA has learned that top State Department officials briefed Jewish organizational leaders about the decision in a conference call late Tuesday evening.

Since its creation in 2006 to replace the widely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the council has passed 32 resolutions; 26 have been critical of Israel, according to UN Watch, a pro-Israel monitoring group based in Geneva. More than half of the council’s members fall short of basic democracy standards, according to Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group. And in the past two years the council has moved to eliminate its country-specific special experts investigating human rights abuses in Darfur, Congo, Cuba, Belarus and Liberia.

"Those who suffer from abuse and oppression around the world, as well as those who dedicate their lives to advancing human rights, need the council to be balanced and credible," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "The U.S. is seeking election to the council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective council."

The Anti-Defamation League expressed concern about the Obama administration’s decision.

"There is no question that the U.S. can play a decisive role in making U.N. institutions more effective, but the Human Rights Council has deep systemic flaws," said Abraham Foxman, the group’s national director. "We remain concerned that the U.S. decision to join the council before meaningful reforms are put into motion may not achieve this desired goal."

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the most senior Jewish lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, in his capacity as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee supported the decision.

"The time is ripe to take a more positive and active role in challenging the Council and in speaking out about genuine human rights atrocities," Berman said in a statement. "In two years, the Human Rights Council faces a mandated five-year review. By participating in the process as a member of the Council, the Obama Administration can begin working to bring about a much-needed overhaul.”

The World Jewish Congress wondered whether the time was ripe for joining the council.

"There are so many players on the Human Rights Council that do not have our interests at heart that I think it will mobilize against the things that the United States is going to fight for," said Betty Ehrenberg, a WJC spokeswoman. "I’m not sure at this moment that the Human Rights Council is free enough of its past and present difficulties and complications to make this effort fruitful at this moment."

The executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, said he welcomes the U.S. decision, "but only if it’s to vigorously push back against the world’s worst abusers." He added, "The council is worse than ever before, pathologically obsessed with scapegoating Israel while turning a blind eye to millions of human rights victims around the world.”

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