UNITED NATIONS — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria won seats Tuesday on the U.N. Human Rights Council, riling independent human rights groups who said their election undermined the rights watchdog's credibility.
The General Assembly elected 14 new members to the 47-seat Geneva-based council, which can shine a spotlight on rights abuses by adopting resolutions — when it chooses to do so. It also has dozens of special monitors watching problem countries and major issues ranging from executions to drone strikes.
Britain, France, the Maldives, Macedonia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia and South Africa were also elected to three-year terms.
Human Rights Watch noted that five of the new council members — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Algeria — have refused to let U.N. investigators visit to check alleged abuses. China, Russia and Algeria have 10 or more unfulfilled requests for visits by U.N. experts, some dating back to 2000, the group said. Saudi Arabia and Vietnam each have seven outstanding requests, they said.
"Countries that haven't allowed U.N. experts appointed by the council to visit have a lot of explaining to do," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director of the New York-based non-government group. "It's like hiring someone, then not allowing them to enter the office."
Across the street from the main gate of U.N. headquarters, pro-Tibet activists hung a huge banner saying "China Fails Human Rights."
Seats, allotted by region, are sometimes contested and sometimes not. All 193 members of the General Assembly can vote by secret ballots, which were collected in wooden ballot boxes from delegates.
Geneva-based UN Watch, a frequent critic of U.N. rights practices, denounced what it considered the worst new members.
"China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia systematically violate the human rights of their own citizens, and they consistently vote the wrong way on U.N. initiatives to protect the human rights of others," said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer. "For the U.N. to elect Saudi Arabia as a world judge on human rights would be like a town making a pyromaniac into chief of the fire department.
"Regrettably, so far neither the U.S. nor the EU have said a word about hypocritical candidacies that will undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the UN human rights system. By turning a blind eye as human rights violators easily join and subvert the council, leading democracies will be complicit in the world body's moral decline."
UN Watch and other groups have also criticized the Human Rights Council for its preoccupation with reports and resolutions criticizing Israel over the Palestinian issue. By contrast, Neuer said that the council has never adopted a resolution critical of Russia, China or Saudi Arabia.
This year's election had some added backstage drama. Saudi Arabia had been expected to run into trouble in the General Assembly vote because last month it won, and then a day later rejected, a seat on the Security Council for 2014-2015, an unprecedented move. The kingdom was apparently protesting differences with the United States on issues in the Mideast, including Washington's response to the Egypt and Syria crises and its outreach with Iran, the Saudis' regional foe.
Until last week, Jordan had also been a candidate. But then it dropped out of the Human Rights Council race, clearing the way for Saudi Arabia to win unopposed. Jordan, meanwhile, is angling to replace Saudi Arabia on the Security Council.
The losers in Tuesday's balloting were Uruguay, beaten by Cuba and Mexico for seats in the Latin America and Caribbean group; and South Sudan, which failed to get enough votes to win one of the four African seats.
The United States is among the current members of the council, with a term set to expire in 2015.
Hicks of Human Rights Watch called on responsible nations to call out the abuses of the worst offenders, regardless of who is on the council.
"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," Hicks said. "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. Fortunately, no states have a veto in Geneva, so a hard-working majority can still achieve concrete results."
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