By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday won three-year seats on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the United Nations' top rights body, despite concerns about abuses and restrictions on freedoms in all four nations.
Also winning seats on the 47-nation council were Algeria, Britain, France, Mexico, the Maldives, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The annual election for one-third of the council's membership was held in the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly.
South Sudan and Uruguay failed to win election to the council in competitive slates for their respective regional groups. The other regions had uncontested ballots.
The newly elected countries will be on the council from 2014 through 2016.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said the newly elected members of the council include "some that commit significant violations of the rights the council is designed to advance and protect" and that the election itself was a reminder that the council's work remains unfinished.
Power did not specify which countries she was referring to. Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch was more specific.
"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 Hicks, an expert at the New York-based advocacy group.
"Fortunately, no states have a veto in Geneva so a hard-working majority can still achieve concrete results."
Hicks said members of council that are committed to human rights will need to redouble their efforts on a number of problems. These include the civil war in Syria, accountability for crimes committed during the final months of Sri Lanka's civil war and the conflict in the Central African Republic.
According to U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based advocacy group that monitors the United Nations, only four of the 16 candidates for the 14 open seats were qualified to be members of the council on the basis of their human rights records. They were Britain, France, Macedonia and Mexico.
Iran and Syria had been planning to run for the Human Rights Council but pulled out amid criticism of their rights records.
QUESTIONABLE RIGHTS RECORDS
There was a small protest against China's policy on Tibet across the street from the United Nations as the vote took place.
Western countries accused China last month of arresting activists, curbing Internet use and suppressing ethnic minorities, as the United Nations formally reviewed its rights record for the first time since Xi Jinping became president in March.
Saudi Arabia's human rights record has also came under fire at the United Nations with critics accusing the kingdom last month of jailing activists without due process and abusing the basic rights of Saudi women and foreign workers.
Jordan withdrew from the election after Saudi Arabia abandoned its seat on the U.N. Security Council to protest against the 15-nation body's inaction on Syria, the Middle East peace process and Iran. Western diplomats said Jordan stepped aside to allow the Saudis an almost certain victory on the uncontested Human Rights Council voting slate. Despite its withdrawal from the election, Jordan received 16 votes.
Jordan is set to take Saudi Arabia's Security Council seat, diplomats say, although that would require the General Assembly to hold a special election.
In response to criticism of its human rights record, Cuba said in May that it would consider letting in U.N. investigators to examine allegations of torture and repression and allowing Red Cross officials access to its prisons for the first time in nearly 25 years.
The European Union, Human Rights Watch and others have criticized Russia's human rights record as well. They have voiced concerns about restrictive legislation, prosecutions against activists and limits on press freedom.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Christopher Wilson)