Ambassadors from most of the 191 U.N. member states burst into sustained applause when General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, announced the results of the vote: 170 in favor, four against, and three abstentions. But U.S. Ambassador John Bolton refused to join in the applause.
A year ago, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed replacing the widely criticized and highly politicized U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has allowed some of the worst-offending countries to use their membership to protect one another from condemnation.
The Human Rights Council, approved Wednesday, is a watered-down version of Annan's vision. But the secretary-general still called it "historic," and human rights groups welcomed its creation.
"This gives the United Nations the chance — a much-needed chance — to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world," Annan said in a statement.
While no country will be satisfied with everything in the resolution establishing the new council, he said it provides "a solid foundation on which all who are truly committed to the cause of human rights must now build."
The resolution was drafted by Eliasson after months of contentious negotiations.
Before the vote, he told the assembly it represents "a unique opportunity for a fresh start for human rights" and would strengthen the U.N.'s machinery and toughen criteria for membership by requiring members to uphold the highest human rights standards.
The new council will also meet more frequently and periodically review the rights records of all U.N. member states for the first time. The General Assembly can suspend a member for "gross" human rights violations by a two-thirds majority of those voting — and a special session can be called if at least one-third of the council's 47 members approve, a provision aimed at responding quickly to human rights emergencies.
But the United States was far more skeptical of the council than were Annan, Eliasson and the vast majority of U.N. members.
Bolton said there were some improvements over the commission, "but on too many issues the current text is not sufficiently improved."
The United States supported Annan's original proposal for a small permanent council as "a strong tool" to deal with its pre-eminent concern — "the credibility" of the commission's members, he said.
That tool would have required members of the new council to be elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, a measure which would have helped keep off rights abusers. But the resolution adopted Wednesday calls for election by an absolute majority — 96 members.
The United States also wanted countries subject to U.N. sanctions related to human rights abuses or acts of terrorism to be barred from membership, Bolton said, but this was not included in the resolution.
"Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership ... we did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council would be better than its predecessor," he said. "That said, the United States will work cooperatively with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as it can be."
"The real test will be the quality of membership that emerges on this council and whether it takes effective action to address serious human rights abuse cases like Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Burma," Bolton said.
U.S. officials said Washington opposes withholding money from the U.N. budget, which will fund the new council, but no decision has been made on whether the United States will seek a seat.
Joining the United States in opposing the resolution were Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Venezuela, Belarus and Iran abstained.
One of the surprises was Cuba's "yes" vote, despite its claim that the council, like the commission, unjustly targeted developing countries and was controlled by "the powers of the North."
"The attacks of the current U.S. administration to the text being adopted today prove their arrogance," said Cuba's U.N. Ambassador Rodrigo Malmierca.