UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Kuwait was among 15 nations elected on Friday to the U.N. Human Rights Council after Syria, under pressure over its crackdown on protesters, dropped its bid for an Arab slot on the controversial panel.
Kuwait stepped into the race last week after Western countries persuaded Arab states that Syria was not a suitable candidate. In a General Assembly vote, the Gulf emirate was elected along with India, Indonesia and the Philippines on a clean, or uncontested, slate of Asian nations for three-year council terms.
Africa and Western Europe also presented clean slates but there were contested votes for Eastern Europe -- where the Czech Republic and Romania defeated Georgia -- and Latin America, where Chile and Costa Rica edged out Nicaragua.
The 47-nation Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, is the main U.N. body charged with monitoring member states' compliance with international rights norms.
Critics say it spends too much time denouncing Israel while ignoring violations by Sri Lanka, Bahrain, China, Russia and other countries. Libya, elected to the council last year, is suspended because of its civil war.
Syria told a closed meeting of Asian U.N. members on May 11 it had agreed to swap candidacies with Kuwait, which was set to run for the council in 2013, and drop out of the 2011 race, diplomats said.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari denied at the time that the decision was connected with events in his country, where troops and tanks have killed hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in recent weeks.
He said the move was based on "reconsidering our priorities" and Syria would run for the council in 2013.
Even though Syria was not standing up for membership, five of the 192 countries in the General Assembly voted for it on Friday, assembly president Joseph Deiss said in announcing the results. Because the ballot was secret it was unclear who they were.
Elected for the so-called "Western European and others" group were Austria and Italy, while Burkina Faso, Botswana, the Congo Republic and Benin were elected for Africa.
Human rights groups have hailed the fact that Syria will not be elected this year but, as they have done in past years, criticized the clean slate system under which regional groups present only as many candidates as seats are available.
"Without competition for seats on the Human Rights Council, the membership standards set by the General Assembly become meaningless," said Peggy Hicks of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "Manufactured slates of candidates may be easier for states, but they are bad for the council."
Geneva-based group UN Watch said Kuwait and Congo were "not qualified" to be on the council.
Kuwait's "ruling family largely sets the policy agenda and dominates political life. Formal political parties are banned," it said, adding that the country limits freedom of the press and assembly and has no independent judiciary.
In Congo, the group said, recent elections were "marred by irregularities," press freedom was limited and the judiciary was subject to corruption and political influence.
The defeat of Nicaragua was a setback for left-wing governments in the Latin America group, which also includes Caribbean states.
Editing by Philip Barbara