The U.N.' top human rights body created a new special investigator's job Thursday to look into human rights abuses in Iran, overcoming resistance from nations that considered it meddling with that country's internal affairs.
The vote marks the first time since it was formed five years ago that the U.N. Human Rights Council has created such an investigative position for a U.N. member nation, rather than merely extending the mandate of a previously existing one.
An outside expert is to be appointed to the new position when the council next meets in June.
All of the previous country-specific investigators were created by the former U.N. Commission on Human Rights, a body long criticized for being dominated by countries with dubious rights records, that the new council replaced.
The White House welcomed the move, with President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon saying it is "a historic milestone that reaffirms the global consensus and alarm about the dismal state of human rights in Iran."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said there has been "an unacceptable deterioration" in human rights in Iran and the new U.N. investigator could "provide encouragement to the many Iranians who bravely continue to speak up for their rights and the rights of others."
Hague said Iranian authorities since the 2009 elections "have systematically sought to silence all dissenting voices, through detaining and harassing human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and most recently opposition leaders (Mir Hossein) Mousavi and (Mahdi) Karroubi."
Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said she hopes a new investigator will bring to light "the true dimensions of human rights violations in Iran" and lead to U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Iran's U.N. Ambassador Seyed Mohammad Reza Sajjadi, however, told the council the United States has committed human rights abuses against Palestinians by supporting Israel, against Afghan civilians and against secretly held detainees who also have been tortured.
The proposal championed by the United States and Sweden won approval in a 22-7 vote at the council. As many as 14 nations abstained, and four of the council's 47 nations did not participate.
Iran and Pakistan echoed what has been a widely held view on the council that such posts are an unnecessary intrusion into their internal affairs.
"This politicizes the process," said Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking for the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents most Muslim nations.
"As a matter of principle, Pakistan does not support country mandates," he said. "No country in the world can claim to have an unblemished human rights record."
But with the uprisings in North Africa and the Arab world, some of the governments that share Pakistan's resistance to what it describes as outside meddling have been persuaded to take action against authoritarian leaders like Moammar Gadhafi.
Those uprisings also have inspired the return of some protests in Tehran that had been absent for more than a year after relentless crackdowns. However, opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi have dropped out sight _ and their supporters say they are being detained along with their wives, a charge the government denies.
Thursday's vote came after diplomats and observers said the council gained fresh legitimacy last month when it voted for the first time to ostracize one of its members _ Libya _ because of the regime's abuse of its people. Iran, on the other hand, is not a member.
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative at the council, said a new and U.N.-appointed independent investigator _ known as a special rapporteur _ could help the council figure out how to respond to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's report on Iran last September. It concluded that Iranian authorities had engaged in "an intensified crackdown on human rights defenders, women's rights activists, journalists, and government opponents."
She noted that the report also cited amputations, floggings and acts of torture carried out by the Iranian government, including sentencing men and women to death by stoning.
The U.N. has appointed dozens of independent special investigators, or rapporteurs, on topics ranging from torture and human trafficking to food security and cultural rights. It also has fewer than 10 such appointees for countries such as Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan.
"Country-specific special rapporteurs are used in extreme situations. Iran is one of those," Donahoe told reporters after Thursday's vote, which she called "a seminal moment" for the U.N. rights council created in 2006.
The United States won election to the council in May 2009, after the Obama administration reversed the previous Bush administration's stance that there was nothing to be gained by taking part in an organization long dominated by adversarial developing nations and powers opposed to Israel.
"This membership has had nothing but a destructive role," Seyed Mohammad Reza Sajjadi told the council before it voted, referring to U.S. participation on the council. Iran, he added, has an "inherent, genuine and deeply rooted" respect for human rights.
The council also voted separately 30-3 on Thursday to extend the mandate of its special human rights investigator on North Korea for another year. Eleven nations abstained from that vote, and three did not participate.