UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Saudi Arabia and Chad easily won coveted seats on the U.N. Security Council Thursday, despite criticism from human rights groups that their rights records are abysmal. Nigeria, Lithuania and Chile also won seats.
The five candidates endorsed by regional groups faced no opposition because there were no contested races for the first time in several years. In the first round of voting by the 193-member General Assembly, Lithuania was the top vote-getter with 187 votes followed by Nigeria and Chile with 186 votes, Chad with 184 votes and Saudi Arabia with 176 votes. A two-thirds majority of those voting was needed to win.
Security Council seats are highly coveted because they give countries a strong voice in matters dealing with international peace and security, in places like Syria, Iran and North Korea, as well as the U.N.'s far-flung peacekeeping operations.
The 15-member council includes five permanent members with veto power — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — and 10 nonpermanent members elected for two-year terms. The five countries elected Thursday will assume their posts on Jan. 1 and serve through the end of 2015. They will replace Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo.
Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, denounced the election of Chad, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. "The prestige of a seat at the world's foremost diplomatic table should prompt the new members to get their house in order," he told the Associated Press.
"Chad should put an end to the recruitment of child soldiers, which earned it a spot on the U.N. list of shame," he said. "Saudi Arabia should end its crackdown on human rights activists and grant women their full rights."
Bolopion also criticized Nigeria, saying it should "end chronic abuse by security forces and better protect civilians in the north" from attacks by the Boko Haram terrorist network. Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based human rights group UN Watch, accused Saudi Arabia of denying women the right to vote, drive a car or travel without the permission of a male relative. He also accused it of "praising and shielding Sudan" whose president, Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Neuer said Chad should not have oversight on U.N. peacekeeping operations as long it employs child soldiers. The three countries did not address their critics in welcoming their victories. Chad's Foreign Minister Moussa Faki told reporters that election to the council is "recognition of the role of Chad in peace and security in the African region." Chad has protested its inclusion in the "list of shame," saying it has worked aggressively with the U.N. to end child soldier recruitment and has made significant progress.
Saudi Arabia's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said his country's election "is a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means."
He expressed hope that working with other members Palestine will be able to establish an independent state, which he called "the core issue of the difficulties in the Middle East." He also expressed hope that the Syrian people will achieve "their aspiration for freedom and prosperity and unity."
Nigeria's Foreign Minister Viola Onwuliri said her country will focus on conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy, mediation, the control of small arms and light weapons, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and "the protection of all."
"We'll talk for Africa," she said. "The African issues are the majority of issues facing the United Nations Security Council today." Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, called on the new council members "to consistently utilize their position to prevent atrocities and protect vulnerable populations."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country regained its independence in 1991 and currently holds the European Union presidency, told reporters it wants to focus on "humanitarian values" and the protection of women and children in conflict.
Chad, Saudi Arabia and Lithuania have never served on the U.N.'s most powerful body while Nigeria and Chile have both been on the council four times previously. Seats in the Security Council are allocated by region, and regional groups nominate candidates. There are often hotly contested races. In 2007, for example, a runoff between Guatemala and Venezuela went 47 rounds before Panama was finally elected as the Latin America candidate.
This year, there were initially two candidates for a West African seat but Gambia dropped out last week in favor of Nigeria. Because balloting is secret, there is intense lobbying for votes by candidates, even in uncontested races, to ensure they get the minimum number needed for victory — and to see who gets the highest vote.