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Sudan's humanitarian aspirations rankle Washington

A U.N. subcommittee dealing with economic and social matters selected Sudan to chair a special session in Geneva in July on the promotion of humanitarian assistance, prompting European and other Western governments to request the decision be reversed and that Sudan be given a less controversial assignment, diplomats told Turtle Bay.

Nestor Osorio, the president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, was expected to announce Sudan's selection for the post tomorrow at a meeting at U.N. headquarters. But European governments requested that a decision be postponed as government scrambled to convince Sudan to abandon its quest for the job. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., spoke with Osorio this week to express Washington's concerns about the selection of Sudan.

Western powers are concerned that appointment of Sudan would set the stage for another embarrassing U.N. spectacle in which a country routinely denounced for denying access to humanitarian aid workers is given the job of advocating for their interests.

The move comes against a background of troubled relations between Khartoum and humanitarian aid workers. In March, 2009, one day after the International Criminal Court accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of committing genocide, his government expelled 13 international relief agencies from Darfur. Sudan has also prevented international aid workers into the restive Sudanese regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where conflict has displaced nearly 700,000 people and forced more than 200,000 to flee to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Earlier this week, Rice rebuked Sudan in a Security Council session for its "appalling and unacceptable" refusal to grant international aid workers access to needy Sudanese civilians, particularly in areas under the control of its armed rivals from the northern branch of Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N).

"The Government of Sudan has refused for now a year and a half to permit the safe and unhindered provision of international humanitarian assistance to address the acute humanitarian emergency in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, particularly the SPLM-North controlled areas, which is largely of Khartoum's making," Rice told the 15-nation council in the Tuesday debate on the protection of civilians.

It is not the first time that Sudan has competed for a controversial post at the United Nations.  The United States and other Western powers successfully derailed a previous Sudanese campaign to join the U.N. Security Council as one of its 10 non-permanent members. Last August, Sudan dropped a bid to serve as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, following criticism from human rights organization and governments who claimed that a government whose leader was wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges had no place in the U.N.'s chief human rights body.

But Sudan has not given up and the U.N.'s African bloc continues to put forward the Sudanese government as a candidate for choice U.N. posts, despite questions about fitness for the job. The real culprit is the U.N. system of regional voting blocs, which generally pre-select a list of candidates based on which country is next in line. The practice ensures that everyone gets their chance -- whether deserved or not -- and prevents messy elections. Sudan, which has previously been blocked from serving on the U.N. Security Council, has been waiting in line a long time for a choice committee appointment. And African states appear willing to grant them that chance, even if it may prove embarrassing.

In the latest episode, Albania, Austria, Pakistan, and Sudan were appointed vice presidents of an organizing committee responsible for presiding over the Economic and Social Council's annual session, which runs from July 1-26.

The ECOSOC meeting, which will take place in Geneva, will be broken up into five segments, including a high-level meeting hosted by Osorio, a meeting on how the U.N. coordinates its global activities, as well as a discussion on humanitarian aid.  Sudan has aggressively pursued the humanitarian aid post. Diplomats say that Osorio and the other vice presidents are trying to convince Sudan to accept another, less controversial assignment.

"Clearly Sudan is trying to score points in the humanitarian field to try to show the world it cares about this when we know on the ground that their action runs contrary to that," said one U.N.-based diplomat. "Sudan is going to get something but we trust that there will be enough wisdom" to identify a less controversial assignment for Khartoum.

"Given all the criticisms of their humanitarian record why would they put such a visible target on their back?" asked another U.N. diplomat.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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