Zimbabwe has won approval to head a key UN body charged with promoting economic progress and environmental protection despite protests from the US, European nations and human rights organizations.
The 53-member Commission on Sustainable Development voted 26-21 with three abstentions on the new chair, said Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, vice chair of the commission. The chair traditionally rotates among regions of the world and falls to Africa this year.
The government of Zimbabwe has nominated Francis Nhema, the minister of environment and tourism, to chair the commission.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, an 83-year-old who has ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, has been criticized by the West and domestic opponents for repression, corruption, acute food shortages and gross economic mismanagement that has driven inflation to more than 2,000 percent -- the highest in the world. Mugabe has also acknowledged that police used violent methods against opposition supporters.
"We're very disappointed in the election of Zimbabwe as chair," said US representative to the commission Dan Reifsnyder, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for environment and science at the US State Department.
"We really think it calls into question the credibility of this organization to have a representative from a country that has decimated its agriculture, that used to be the breadbasket of Africa and can't now feed itself," Reifsnyder said.
The newly elected chairman dismissed reporters' questions on Friday night about his country's international standing and capacity to hold such a position in a global body.
"I think it's not time to point fingers," Nhema said. "There is never a perfect method, it's always a method which is appropriate to each country. So it's important not only to look at Zimbabwe but to look at each other and see what we can learn."
US officials said the commission deals with rural development and sustainable agriculture and Zimbabwe is no role model on those themes.
Mugabe's government disrupted the agriculture-based economy in 2000 with violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms, part of a program to redistribute land to poor blacks.
Several European nations have also called Zimbabwe's candidacy inappropriate.
On Friday, the Pan African Parliament, a body of the African Union, voted to send a mission to Zimbabwe to investigate alleged human rights abuses "relating to the arrests and detention, assault and murder of political activists and members of the media."
"Zimbabwe is hardly a model of good governance or sustainable development or even responsible leadership," said Benjamin Chang, deputy spokesman for the US Mission to the UN. "Our concern is that it's potential chairmanship would undermine the commission's credibility."
Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the human rights group Freedom House, said before the vote that it was "preposterous" for Zimbabwe to lead any UN body. Freedom House is an independent nongovernmental organization that has monitored political rights and civil liberties in Zimbabwe since 1980.
She said Mugabe's government "clearly has nothing but scorn for the UN's founding principles of human rights, security and international law."
The UN Commission on Sustainable Development was established by the General Assembly in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro that year and implement key environmental and development agreements.
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