By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States and NGO campaign groups Wednesday said diplomatic shifts on highly- charged issues like religion and Iran in the long-polarized U.N. Human Rights Council could turn it into a more effective body.
U.S. ambassador Eileen Donahoe said emerging accords on tackling religious hatred, Iran's rights record and unusual cooperation across mutually suspicious regional blocs on Libya could mark a turning point for the forum.
"While the council remains an imperfect body, we have seen distinct progress in terms of its ability to respond to happenings in the world with respect to human rights in real time," the U.S. ambassador to the council told reporters.
"There is more shared common ground here than people realize."
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to promote universal human rights used terms like "seismic shift" and "groundbreaking" to describe an apparent softening in demands from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic States (OIC) that religions be protected internationally from "defamation."
NGOs had previously welcomed the council's surprising consensus decision last month to expel Libya -- whose rights record most members had praised effusively only three months earlier -- for killing anti-government protesters.
Campaigners said the shift would be underlined if the council, at the end of its spring session this week, passes a Swedish-U.S. resolution strongly rebuking Iran over the execution and mistreatment of dissenters.
Donahoe said she was confident the resolution -- which is backed by states from around the world and would create a post of special rights investigator for Iran -- would go through.
Since it was created in 2006, the 47-member council has been the stage for confrontation, pitting the OIC -- usually backed by Asian and African countries, as well as Russia, China and Cuba -- against the West and some Latin American countries.
This had led to a Cold War-style standoff, typical of the old rights body the council replaced, where the majority of developing countries almost routinely blocked any criticism of members of the so-called non-aligned movement (NAM).
As a result, any attempt by Western council members to raise rights issues in countries like Zimbabwe, Iran, China, Sri Lanka, Cuba and Sudan were mainly brushed aside as colonial- style interference in domestic affairs.
Instead, the body focused much of its fire on Israel, its treatment of Palestinians and behavior toward neighboring Arab countries -- sparking fierce attacks on it by influential pro-Israeli and anti-U.N. groups in the United States.
Under former president George W. Bush, Washington stood aloof from the council, but the United States joined it in 2009 after the election of President Barack Obama, saying it wanted to encourage multilateral cooperation on global issues.
European and Latin American countries -- like Chile and Argentina -- welcomed the U.S. return and their diplomats say its presence has given strong impetus to their efforts to get the council to address rights issues even-handedly.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)