In a symbolic rebuke to the Bush administration, the member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) have for the first time voted to exclude the US from representation on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, considered the most prestigious human rights monitoring body in the Western Hemisphere.
The decision came at the end of the three-day annual assembly of the OAS, held this year in Santiago, Chile, and attended by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Addressing the conference on Monday, Powell sharply condemned a recent wave of executions and imprisonments in Cuba and urged the 34-member regional group to help "hasten the inevitable democratic transition in Cuba."
Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the State Department, said on Wednesday that "The US is disappointed that our candidate was not elected to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission," but "we remain strong supporters of the commission and the Inter-American human rights system in general."
Created in 1959, the commission is an arm of the OAS that observes and investigates human rights conditions throughout the Western Hemisphere and has processed 12,000 complaints or petitions of specific violations in member states. It consists of seven members elected to four-year terms, who are supposed to demonstrate "recognized competence in the field of human rights."
In private, several nations were critical of what they characterized as Powell's excessive and narrow focus on Cuba at the expense of other issues. The theme of this year's assembly, which ended Tuesday, was "Democratic Governability in the Americas," which most delegations saw as an opportunity to express concern about growing social inequities and flagging economic growth in the region.
"There is a readiness among member states to talk about Cuba, but in a balanced way, and not only about human rights," a senior OAS official said in a meeting with reporters Monday in Santiago. "Many states, some of Latin America and all of the Caribbean," he added, also "want to talk about the isolation of Cuba, the embargo, and all of that."
"That is the problem," the official added. The Bush administration, he said, "has a very strong position, so there really is some difficulty in dealing with the issue of Cuba only in relation to human rights."
But the negative vote also reflected widespread doubts about the qualifications of the American candidate, Rafael "Ralph" Martinez.
"Clearly, the person they put forward, whatever his merits, did not have a very impressive background in human rights," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington.
Martinez's nomination, he added "showed not just a sort of indifference to a major regional political organization on the part of the administration, but also the growing distrust on the other side about what the US agenda and motives are."