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, 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 because of competitive slates in their respective regional groups. The other regions had uncontested ballots.
The newly elected countries will be on the council from 2014 through 2016.
"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 of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
"Fortunately, no states have a veto in Geneva so a hard-working majority can still achieve concrete results," she said.
Hicks said members of council that are committed to human rights will need to redouble their efforts on a number of key problems - the civil war in Syria, the question of accountability for crimes committed during the final months of Sri Lanka's civil war, and the war in 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 rights council on the basis of their human rights records - Britain, France, Macedonia and Mexico.
Originally 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 also came under fire last month at the United Nations with critics accusing the kingdom 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 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 for the Asia Group, which includes Asian and Middle Eastern states. Despite its withdrawal from the election, Jordan received 16 votes.
Jordan is set to take the Saudi Security Council seat, diplomats say, although to do so will 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. human rights 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 rights record as well. They have voiced concerns about restrictive legislation, prosecutions against activists and limits on press freedom.
Russia ranks 148th out of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom index compiled by the journalist watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Pressure on the media in Russia has increased since President Vladimir Putin returned to power last year following an unprecedented wave of opposition protests.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Bill Trott)