* Critics say council has unfairly focused on Israel
* Ranking Republican says U.S. decision is a mistake
* UN chief says it shows "new era of engagement" for U.S. (Adds U.N. secretary-general, paragraph 10)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it will run for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, reversing the Bush administration’s decision to keep its distance from the 47-member panel.
"The United States will seek a seat this year on the United Nations Human Rights Council with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights," the State Department said in a statement.
"The decision is in keeping with the Obama Administration’s ‘new era of engagement’ with other nations to advance American security interests," it added.
The 47-member council, an inter-governmental body founded under the U.N. system three years ago, aims to promote human rights around the world, but critics argue that its members have worked to protect some nations from criticism and have unfairly singled out Israel. It is based in Geneva.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, sharply criticized the decision, saying it "surrenders the strongest leverage we have to force changes in the council."
"Our participation would only grant legitimacy to the biased actions of a fundamentally illegitimate body," she said in a statement.
The same committee’s chairman, Democratic Representative Howard Berman, supported the move, saying that by participating "as a member of the Council, the Obama Administration can begin working to bring about a much-needed overhaul."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said council membership would be "a tool to advance our interests."
"We don’t view it as legitimizing the council," she told reporters in a conference call. "We will stand up and forcefully lead on those issues that we care most deeply about."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement welcoming the decision, saying it was a concrete example of the U.S. commitment to a "new era of engagement" at the United Nations.
The United States took a step toward a rapprochement with the council on March 4 by participating in it for the first time and urging it to address all violations of rights around the world and to stop singling out Israel for criticism.
Of the 10 special sessions held by the council, five have been called to discuss and criticize Israeli policies toward Palestinians and Lebanon.
Elections for the Human Rights Council will be in May.
Asked if Washington would attempt to shield Israel from criticism if it wins a seat on the council, Rice said, "The Human Rights Council has the potential to be and should be a venue for dealing with the most egregious instances of human rights abuses."
"And we are running for a seat on the council because we believe that human rights are universal, they need to be universally respected," she added.
Under former U.S. President George W. Bush, the United States decided not to join the council at its inception out of a concern that it would not pursue issues in a balanced manner and that it would focus unduly on Israel, a close U.S. ally.
The Bush administration went a step further by suspending even U.S. observer status at the council, a decision that the Obama administration reversed on Feb. 27.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, welcomed the U.S. decision. "It puts them in a position to make what has been a flawed institution more effective and more principled," he said. (Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; editing by Mohammad Zargham)