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By Jeane Kirkpatrick

Jeane Kirkpatrick was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

WASHINGTON -- The United States has been an active member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission from its founding in 1947. But last week, the United States suffered a highly publicized defeat when it failed to poll the votes needed to win one of the three seats allocated to Western countries. Instead, three members of the European Union (EU) won the seats allocated to the Western Group (WEOG, as it is called in U.N. circles): France with 52 votes out of a possible 54, Austria with 41 votes and Sweden with 32. The United States, trailing with 29 votes, was eliminated.

In subsequent days various explanations were offered for this defeat. Many emphasized the widespread disagreement in the world body with various U.S. policies, including the Kyoto treaty, the International Criminal Court and the Land Mine Treaty. Others pointed out widespread disagreement with the Bush administration's decision to construct a missile defense and abrogate the ABM Treaty with the now nonexistent Soviet Union.

None of these discussions took account of the significant fact that, during the same week, the U.S. candidate, Ambassador Herbert Okun, was defeated in his effort to win reelection to a seat on the International Narcotics Control Board. In that election, on May 3, the 54 member states of ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) voted among 32 candidates to fill five vacancies without regard to regional distribution. Once again, three EU countries -- Austria, Netherlands and France -- were elected as were Peru and India.

In the case of both the Human Rights Commission and the Narcotics Control Board, the outcome was a surprise since the number of written confirmations of intended support for the U.S. candidate was substantially higher than the number of votes actually cast.

Some observers in and out of the United Nations explained the failure of the United States to win a Human Rights Commission seat as a consequence of its hard-hitting human rights policies, especially this year, when American delegates spearheaded efforts to discuss repression in both China and Cuba. This, of course, is what a Human Rights Commission should discuss.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chair of the House International Relations Committee, described the vote as "a deliberate attempt to punish the United States for its insistence that the commission tell the truth about human rights abuses whenever they occur.'' I think he's right. The U.S. habit of truth telling in the United Nations about human rights violations was surely an important basis of some countries' decisions. So is the U.S.' regular opposition to unfair attacks on other members -- such as Israel.

The records of repression matter as more and more governments that are themselves infamous human rights violators have managed to get elected to the Human Rights Commission (thereby acquiring votes), e.g.: Libya, Syria, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Uganda. China and Cuba are also members.

The ambassador of France has attributed the success of his country in the Human Rights Commission to the fact that France's foreign policy is founded on "dialogue and respect.'' By implication, the U.S. failure is based on their absence. China agrees. China has suggested that the time has arrived for the United States to "stop using human rights issues as a tool to pursue its power politics and hegemonism.'' It will be possible to do that when China stops using its power to violate its citizens' human rights. I hope that U.S. policy remains based on empathy for the repressed.

The United States has no friends among those countries that regularly repress their citizens -- and not many friendly associates.

The vote in the Human Rights Commission makes one wonder if the United States has reliable friends and allies among the democracies.

There is not much question that the distance between the United States and its NATO allies has grown in the last decade. The European press shows its displeasure in a steady stream of articles highly critical of the United States and the "American way.'' The criticism has intensified since the inauguration of George W. Bush, who undertook to move America rightward at a time when all but two of the 15 member states of the EU have Socialist governments.

I think it is clear that the rapid consolidation of the EU already has had a negative impact on U.S. relations with several continental European countries in the United Nations. Traditionally, the United States has had close relations with some -- but but not all -- EU members, but now it has become difficult for a U.S. representative to discuss an issue or make common cause with a representative of an EU country.

There is a widespread belief among informed Americans that our allies played a significant role in the U.S. defeat in the Human Rights Commission. It is a fact that if either Sweden or Austria had stepped down in favor of the United States, we would have won a seat. That is how friends, allies and affinity groups operate in the United Nations to achieve common cause.

The United States will never be able to achieve or even work toward our goals in the United Nations if, in addition to opposing our adversaries, we must also compete with our best friends. Our one vote can never win against the EU's 15.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

For immediate release (Distributed 5/7/01)