UNITED NATIONS -- Zimbabwe, a country suffering from acute food shortages and rampant inflation, won approval to lead the important U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development despite protests from the U.S., European nations and human rights organizations.
Africa nominated Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe's minister of environment and tourism, for the post, and the 53-member commission approved that recommendation Friday in a vote of 26-21 with three abstentions, said Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, the commission's vice chair.
The post rotates every year among regions of the world and it was Africa's turn to sit in the chair.
"We're very disappointed in the election of Zimbabwe as chair," said the U.S. representative to the commission Dan Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary for environment and science at the State Department.
"We really think it calls into question the credibility of this organization to have a representative from a country that has decimated its agriculture, that used to be the breadbasket of Africa and can't now feed itself," Reifsnyder said.
Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, with acute shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline, medicines and most other basic goods. Official inflation is running at about 2,200 percent annually, the highest in the world.
President Robert Mugabe, an 83-year-old who has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980, has been widely criticized for mismanaging the economy.
In 2000, Mugabe's government began violently seizing thousands of White-owned commercial farms as part of a program to redistribute land to poor Blacks. The chaotic way the seizures were carried out disrupted the agriculture-based economy in Zimbabwe, a former regional breadbasket. Drought, government corruption and repressive policies have compounded the problems.
The newly elected chairman dismissed questions Friday night about his country's international standing and the appropriateness of Zimbabwe holding such a position in a global body.
"I think it's not time to point fingers," Nhema said. "There is never a perfect method, it's always a method which is appropriate to each country. So it's important not only to look at Zimbabwe but to look at each other and see what we can learn."
Several European nations have also called Zimbabwe's candidacy inappropriate.
On Friday, the Pan-African Parliament, a body of the African Union, voted to send a mission to Zimbabwe to investigate alleged human rights abuses "relating to the arrests and detention, assault and murder of political activists and members of the media."
"Zimbabwe is hardly a model of good governance or sustainable development or even responsible leadership," said Benjamin Chang, deputy spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said before the vote. "Our concern is that its potential chairmanship would undermine the commission's credibility."
Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the human rights group Freedom House, said before the vote that it was "preposterous" for Zimbabwe to lead any U.N. body. Freedom House is independent non-governmental organization that has monitored political rights and civil liberties in Zimbabwe since 1980.
She said Mugabe's government "clearly has nothing but scorn for the U.N.'s founding principles of human rights, security and international law."
The Commission on Sustainable Development was established by the General Assembly in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June that year, and implementation of key environmental and development agreements.
The commission meets annually in New York, and its current session that opened Wednesday is focusing on energy for sustainable development, industrial development, air pollution and climate change.
--The Associated Press