WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pointed to two factors yesterday to explain why he thinks the United States was voted off the United Nations Human Rights Commission this week for the first time since 1947: a voting mix-up by U.S. allies and a show of resistance by nations that oppose U.S. efforts to combat human rights violations.
"We went in thinking we had more than 40 - 43 to be precise - solid, written assurances" of pro-U.S. votes, Powell said in a meeting with reporters at the State Department. "But it's an interesting process. A number of our friends who assumed we had a lock used their votes someplace else, and they're as astonished as we are about what happened."
On Thursday, the United States lost its membership on the commission, while Sudan, Uganda and Sierra Leone, all widely denounced for their rights abuses, won seats. The United States, one of four contenders for three Western-nation slots, received 29 votes of a possible 54. Sweden received 32, Austria 41 and France 52.
Powell said he didn't know who promised votes without delivering and would not try to find out.
"I'm not going to spend any of my time trying to break into what was essentially a secret ballot to find out what happened," he said. "We're just going to continue to pursue human rights" outside the U.N. commission.
Some have suggested that the vote came as retribution by some nations opposed to the Bush administration's rejection of the 1997 Kyoto treaty to ease global warming and its backing away from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.
Critics see those moves as reinforcing a trend of U.S. callousness toward human rights that includes the Clinton administration's rejection of a treaty to ban land mines and the Senate's refusal to approve the nuclear test ban treaty in 1999. "The overall effect is that [the Bush administration is] looking inward instead of trying to see that the United States is part of the world, and they have to take part of the responsibility," said Anita Klum, secretary-general of the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights.
Powell acknowledged that some of President Bush's policies have prompted criticism on the world stage. But he said U.S. opponents - including some of the leading violators of human rights - might have been motivated more by Washington's recent effort to have the Human Rights Commission censure China and by other rights initiatives than by global warming and missile defense policies.
"There has been, frankly, a ganging up by a number of nations who are not as deeply committed to these things," Powell said. "One has to be quite disappointed and find it worrisome to find that, while we were not voted in, Sudan, the biggest single abuser of human rights on the face of the earth, was voted in."
China escaped censure by the commission, but not without bitterness on the panel and not without support from countries such as Russia, India and Pakistan.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the United States' ouster from the commission "a disappointment" but said it "will not stop this president or this country from speaking out strongly on matters of human rights."
In Congress, which has balked at approving U.S. dues to the United Nations in the past and only recently agreed to pay a substantial portion of Washington's arrears, some members predicted that the latest incident could heighten skepticism toward the world body.
"This decision is ludicrous," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican. "What they've done is throw out the world's oldest democracy and put a country with the world's worst human rights record in its place - Sudan."
The House is scheduled to vote next week on an $8.2 billion State Department authorization bill that includes $582 million in overdue U.N. dues.
Now, some in Congress are talking about withholding the money.
"I've been supportive of paying the delinquency, but now I'm not too sure I want to rush into it," said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, a New York Republican and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime U.N. critic, said: "The absence of the United States will mean that the victims of human rights abuses will no longer have a spokesman to defend their hopes for liberty and freedom."
The State Department denied suggestions that it had not campaigned hard enough for a seat on the rights panel. Washington lobbied "very actively for membership" said Richard Boucher, the department spokesman.
Powell said Washington would try to regain membership on the human rights panel next year. "We can hope that people will have a better view of this decision next year and that we will be back on."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.