China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba won seats on the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, despite fierce international criticism of their records.
The UN General Assembly elected 14 seats on the 47-member council which is taking on increased diplomatic importance because of Syria's civil war and other conflicts.
The council, which will start work on January 1, will be one of the most polarized since it was created in 2006.
France and Britain returned to the Geneva-based body. South Africa, Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, Namibia, Maldives, Macedonia and Mexico also secured three year terms.
"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, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
"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," she added.
Most of the seats were decided in advance as regional groups put forward the exact number of candidates for the seats allocated to their region.
Only two regions were contested. For two Latin America seats, Cuba won 148 votes, beating Mexico's 145 and 139 for Uruguay.
South Sudan, the world's newest nation, failed in its bid to get one of four seats for Africa. It got just 89 votes, the lowest of any country in the vote.
South Africa was the leading nation from the region with 169 votes, ahead of Algeria on 164, Morocco on 163 and Namibia on 150.
The Asia-Pacific region was one of the most closely watched, because of China's influence.
The Asian superpower was beaten by Vietnam which secured 184 votes against 176 for China, 164 for Maldives and 140 for Saudi Arabia.
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Rights groups such as HRW and UN Watch strongly condemned the presence of countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba in the runup to the vote.
Algeria, China, and Russia – each have 10 or more unfulfilled requests for visits by UN rights investigators, according to HRW. Saudi Arabia and Vietnam each have seven outstanding requests.
Macedonia got more votes than Russia -- 177 to 176 -- in the contest for two East European seats, but Russian authorities maintained their defiant stance against critics.
Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said the UN election was a "good result". "We will work in order to strengthen cooperation and dialogue and create constructive working atmosphere in the council," he said.
Western nations avoided any controversy over the records of others, but signaled they would press the case for action over Syria.
"We will continue our action so that Human Rights Council gets involved in current international crises, notably in Syria, in Central African Republic or eastern Democratic Republic of Congo," said France's UN ambassador Gerard Araud.
Russia, with China has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.
But all five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and United States -- are now on the Rights Council highlighting the rights council's increasing importance.
"Since its inception, the Human Rights Council has included a lot of repressive regimes. A few years ago nobody would have taken much notice of these elections," said Richard Gowan, a director of New York University's Center for International Cooperation.
"But the Council has been unusually active during the Arab Spring and passed a series of resolutions condemning the Syrian regime while the Security Council has been paralyzed by Russia and China," he added.
He said Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam could use their seats on the Human Rights Council to oppose further resolutions attacking Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia "will want to bash Syria even harder" at the council.
Hicks said that as no country has a veto on Human Rights Council resolutions "a hard-working majority can still achieve concrete results" in Geneva. The permanent five can veto Security Council action.