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China, Russia return to UN Rights Council

A general view of a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 25, 2013 in Geneva
A general view of a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 25, 2013 in Geneva

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba won seats on the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, despite fierce criticism of their records from rights campaigners.

The UN General Assembly elected 14 seats on the 47-member council which is taking on increased diplomatic importance because of the Syria war and other conflicts.

The council, which will start work on January 1, will be one of the most polarized since it was created in 2006.

France and Britain returned to the Geneva-based body.

South Africa, Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, Namibia, Maldives, Macedonia and Mexico also secured three year terms.

"With the return of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba, human rights defenders will have their work cut out for them at the Human Rights Council next year," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

"States truly committed to advancing human rights will need to redouble their efforts on key issues, such as accountability in Sri Lanka, grave abuses in Central African Republic and the ongoing crisis in Syria," she added.

Most of the seats were decided in advance as regional groups put forward the exact number of candidates for the seats allocated to their region.

Only two regions were contested. For two Latin America seats, Cuba won 148 votes, beating Mexico's 145 and 139 for Uruguay.

South Sudan, the world's newest nation, failed in its bid to get one of four seats for Africa. It got just 89 votes, the lowest of any nation in the vote.

South Africa was the leading nation from the region with 169 votes, ahead of Algeria on 164, Morocco on 163 and Namibia on 150.

The Asia-Pacific region was one of the most closely watched, because of China's influence.

The Asian superpower was beaten by Vietnam which secured 184 votes against 176 for China, 164 for Maldives and 140 for Saudi Arabia.

In the vote for two Eastern European seats, Macedonia secured 177 votes ahead of Russia with 176.

In the Western European election, France, with 174 votes, and Britain, with 171, won a new term unopposed.

Rights groups such as HRW and UN Watch strongly condemned the presence of countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba in the runup to the vote.

Algeria, China, and Russia – each have 10 or more unfulfilled requests for visits by UN rights investigators, according to HRW. Saudi Arabia and Vietnam each have seven outstanding requests.

But many experts say the increasingly aggressive campaigning for seats shows the rights council's increasing importance.

"Since its inception, the Human Rights Council has included a lot of repressive regimes. A few years ago nobody would have taken much notice of these elections," said Richard Gowan, a director of New York University's Center for International Cooperation.

"But the Council has been unusually active during the Arab Spring and passed a series of resolutions condemning the Syrian regime while the Security Council has been paralyzed by Russia and China," he added.

He said Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam could use their seats on the Human Rights Council to oppose further resolutions attacking Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia "will want to bash Syria even harder" at the council.

Hicks said that as no country has a veto on Human Rights Council resolutions "a hard-working majority can still achieve concrete results" in Geneva.

Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States remain permanent members of the Security Council and can veto any resolution. Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions on the Syria conflict.