updated 5/12/2009 3:41:11 PM ET 2009-05-12T19:41:11

The United States won a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time Tuesday along with four countries accused of serious human rights violations — Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.

Former President George W. Bush's administration boycotted the council over its repeated criticism of Israel and its refusal to cite flagrant rights abuses in Sudan and elsewhere.

But the U.S. announced in late March that it would seek to join the council to help make it more effective, reflecting President Barack Obama's desire to create a "new era of engagement" with the international community.

Even though the U.S. did not face competition in its regional group for a seat on the 47-member council, it needed to get at least 97 votes — a majority of the 192 U.N. member states — in a secret ballot. It did far better, winning 167 votes.

'We have not been perfect'
"We received 90 percent of the valid votes cast," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice pointed out after the vote. "And we're gratified by the strong showing of encouragement for the United States to again play a meaningful leadership role in multilateral organizations including the United Nations on the very vitally important set of issues relating to human rights and democracy."

Rice was asked whether it wasn't impossible for the council to be effective because the U.S. and other members have been accused of failing to respect human rights.

"We certainly share the view that the council has not performed to its potential, but we wouldn't be running if we thought it was impossible," she said. "Obviously, there will always be some countries whose respect and record on human rights is sub-par. We have not been perfect ourselves."

The Human Rights Council was created in March 2006 to replace the U.N.'s widely discredited and highly politicized Human Rights Commission — with the U.S. virtually alone in voting against its creation. 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.

Seats on the Human Rights Council are allotted by region.

Uncontested states
In Tuesday's election for 18 new council members, Africa and Eastern Europe had contested slates but other regions had uncontested slates — a practice criticized by human rights groups.

In the most hotly contested race in Eastern Europe, Russia and Hungary defeated Azerbaijan, whose human rights record was targeted by a coalition of rights groups for the country's crackdown on political opponents and lack of press freedom.

Russia was also criticized for political manipulation, the virtual elimination of influential opposition parties, and severe limitations on the press.

Africa had the only other contested race with Senegal, Mauritius, Nigeria, Cameroon and Djibouti defeating Kenya.

The five Asian candidates — Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, China and Saudi Arabia — were all elected. So were the three Latin America and Caribbean candidates — Mexico, Uruguay and Cuba.

The three candidates from the Western group also won on the first ballot — Norway, Belgium and the United States.

'A regrettable signal'
Human rights groups strongly criticized the rights records of Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China as well, but with no opposition they won easily.

EYEontheUN — a project of the Hudson Institute, a U.S. think tank, and the Touro Law Center Institute for Human Rights — said the election maintained the grip of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on the council.

Steve Crawshaw, U.N. advocacy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, welcomed the U.S. election and its decision "to re-engage with the world" by joining the council.

But he said the lack of competitiveness sends "a regrettable signal" that could diminish efforts to keep out rights-abusing countries.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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