"It was an outrage for us because we view Cuba as the worst violator of human rights in this hemisphere," said Sichan Siv, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which elected 24 new members to the top U.N. human rights watchdog. "That's why we decided to walk out."
The election came four days after the 53-member Human Rights Commission ended its annual six-week session in Geneva amid criticism that it was dominated by political horse-trading and did too little for the victims of abuses worldwide.
During this year's session, commission members narrowly passed a resolution calling on Cuba to accept a visit by a human rights investigator but failed to approve an amendment criticizing the country's recent crackdown on the opposition — leading to Cuban claims of a "moral victory."
Members also used a procedural move to block discussion of alleged human rights violations in Zimbabwe, ended scrutiny of Sudan and rejected a resolution condemning Russia's record in Chechnya.
In Tuesday's vote, Russia was also re-elected to another three-year term on the commission. Saudi Arabia and several African countries with poor human rights record also gained a seat on the commission.
"Cuba and Russia each have very serious human rights problems and have failed to cooperate with the commission despite many resolutions against them," said Joanna Weschler, U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "It's outrageous that they should be rewarded for this performance with another term on the commission."
Under U.N. rules, regional groups decide who fills seats on U.N. bodies.
Latin America chose Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru for six open seats. Therefore, no vote was necessary in the Economic and Social Commission and all six countries were elected by acclamation.
Siv said he got up and walked out of the Economic and Social Council chamber as Cuba's election was being announced — and again about 1½ hours later when the Cuban representative got up to speak.
"This is a country that for 40 years has not held an election," Siv said. "It's a country that arrests people and puts them in jail at the whim of a dictator. That's why we were so outraged when the candidacies were endorsed this morning."
While the Human Rights Commission was meeting in Geneva, he noted, "Cuban authorities rounded up 78 opposition leaders, independent journalists, librarians and put them in jail and sentenced them up to 20 years in prison. In addition they arrested three alleged hijackers and after one week of incarceration they shot them — no trial, no justice, no nothing."
President Fidel Castro has also ignored a petition signed by 11,000 citizens calling for a referendum on more freedoms.
In April 2002, the United States won back a seat on the commission it lost the previous year. Until that surprise defeat, the United States had been on the commission for 50 years.
In Tuesday's vote, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands defeated Portugal in a contested race among Western nations.
There was also a contested race in the Asian region, with one seat still undecided. Before the vote, North Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam — three countries with bad human rights records — withdrew their candidacies. The five countries elected were Bhutan, India, Nepal, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is known to torture suspects, restrict freedom of expression and require women to get men's permission to travel.
Other countries elected on uncontested slates were Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mauritania, South Africa and Hungary.