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(photo credit: AP [file])
Sri Lanka, which has been strongly criticized for its human rights record, lost its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council Wednesday, but four other countries with poor rights records won seats - Pakistan, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia.
In a close race for two Western seats on the UN's premier human rights body, France received 123 votes and Britain 120 votes - barely defeating Spain, which got 119 votes.
The hotly contested election for 15 seats on the 47-member council, whose performance has also come under attack, was the subject of intense lobbying. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband and French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade were in New York Tuesday seeking support.
Candidates for the Geneva-based council are chosen by regional groups, and the entire 192-member General Assembly votes by secret ballot for new members by region. In Wednesday's election, Africa and Latin America had uncontested slates while Asia, Eastern Europe and the Western European and other States group had contested slates.
In the contest for four council seats from the Asian region, Japan, Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka and East Timor. In the race for two seats in the Eastern European group, Slovakia and Ukraine defeated Serbia and the Czech Republic.
The four African candidates - Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana and Zambia - and the three Latin American candidates - Argentina, Brazil and Chile - all won easily since they had no formal opposition.
General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim announced the results and congratulated the winners who will serve three-year terms on the council starting on June 20.
New York-based Freedom House, which promotes freedoms worldwide, and Geneva-based UN Watch, which monitors the world body's performance based on its Charter, evaluated the 20 candidates for the 15 council seats on their records of promoting human rights at home and at the United Nations.
Their report gave negative ratings to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia, and "questionable" ratings to three candidates with mixed human rights records - Brazil, East Timor and Burkina Faso.
It gave "qualified" ratings to Ghana, Japan, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Argentina, Chile, France, Spain and Britain.
The NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council specifically targeted Sri Lanka's human rights record. On Monday, it got support from three Nobel Peace Prize winners: Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Adolfo PÃ©rez Esquivel of Argentina, and former US president Jimmy Carter. Each published statements urging UN members to vote against Sri Lanka.
In a commentary published by The Guardian in London, Tutu charged that "the systematic abuses by Sri Lankan government forces are among the most serious imaginable," citing widespread torture and extrajudicial killings.
Lawrence Moss, special counsel to Human Rights Watch, said: "Sri Lanka's defeat is a victory for the Human Rights Council."
The Human Rights Council was created in March 2006 to replace the UN's widely discredited and highly politicized Human Rights Commission, and one aim was to keep some of the worst human rights offenders out of its membership.
But the council has been widely criticized for failing to change many of the commission's practices, including putting much more emphasis on Israel than on any other country.
The United States was virtually alone in voting against the establishment of the council, arguing that the new body was only marginally better and would not prevent rights-abusing countries from membership. Washington has chosen to remain off the council.
Muslim countries form a strong bloc in the council and have used their votes to push through resolutions against Israel and block condemnation of their allies, including Sudan.
EYEontheUN, a Project of the Hudson Institute New York and the Touro Law Center Institute for Human Rights, said the election increased the grip of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on the council. It said the number of fully free democracies on the council, which was 49 percent before Wednesday's election, now drops to 22 of 47 council members, or 47 percent.
In the course of two years, the council has held four urgent meetings to debate alleged abuses by the Jewish state, sparking accusations of bias from the US, Canada, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and Israel itself.
Romania's UN ambassador in Geneva, Doru-Romulus Costea, who chairs the 47-nation council until June 19, said last week the UN's top human rights body still lacks real credibility.
As the council prepares to enter its third year, he said it has come a long way but "still has a lot to do" to convince skeptics of its value.