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Exclusive: Kuwait opens bid for Syrian seat on U.N. Human Rights Council

The Kuwaiti government has informed Western officials that it will mount a bid for the Arab seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, setting the stage for a likely end to Syria's controversial campaign to join the 47-member rights body, U.N. based diplomats told Turtle Bay.

Syria has not yet announced a decision to withdraw from the race, and its U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told Turtle Bay Monday afternoon that his government planned to continue its pursuit of the seat. But the U.N.-based diplomat said that Syria has been engaged this week in talks with Kuwait and other Arab countries about the prospect of swapping Syria's rights seat for another U.N.-based post in the future.

In January, the U.N.'s Asian bloc, which includes Arab governments, selected a slate of four candidates, including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Syria for four vacancies in the region. And last month, the U.N.'s Arab bloc publicly backed Syria's bid. The U.N. General Assembly is scheduled to vote to select the council's 15 new members on May 20.

But Syria's campaign has come under fire from the United States, European governments, and human rights activists in the wake of a bloody government crackdown, involving the use of tanks and live fire, on unarmed protesters. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial telling the members of the Arab and Asian blocs that they should be ashamed of their decision to support Syria.

In recent days, support for Syria in those groups has begun to wane. Last week, two key regional powers, Egypt and India, signaled that it was time for Syria to bow out of the race.

"Syria seems to have finally decided to withdraw from this election," said Peggy Hicks, head of global advocacy for Human Rights Watch. "But while the battle here in New York may be over, the violence in Syria is continuing and Human Rights Watch and other human rights activists will continue to press Syria to follow this action with concrete changes on the ground."

Western diplomats also interpreted the decision of Kuwait, which had previously refused to compete for the seat unless Syria stepped aside, as a sign that the Arab countries had struck a deal and that Syria would abandon its bid.

They hailed the development as a sign that the Human Rights Council, which has long been criticized for accepting rights abusers into its ranks, is showing a new willingness to block the world's worst rights abusers from joining the club.

Iran was forced to scrap its campaign to join the council last year in the face of widespread opposition. And the rights council took the unprecedented decision to suspend the membership of one of its members, Libya, because of concern over its brutal treatment of protesters.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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