Belarus, one of the worlds most repressive states, was blocked Thursday from gaining membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council after being outvoted in favor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a late entry.
Human rights groups had been campaigning for weeks to head off the once seemingly assured choice of Belarus after the Eastern European group submitted only Belarus and Slovenia as candidates for the two seats from its region.
Western countries persuaded Bosnia to enter last week and then lobbied General Assembly members vigorously as the only way to reject the bid by Belarus.
In the first round of voting, Slovenia won handily. Bosnia came in second and Belarus third, setting up an immediate runoff that then secured Bosnias position.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, hailed the outcome as heartening. He said, Some have called Belarus the last dictatorship of Europe.
The decision avoided what would have been a serious embarrassment for the rights council, which in the past has inspired scorn for permitting countries like Cuba and Libya as members.
Last week, the United Nations came in for renewed criticism on a similar front when it elected Zimbabwe, a country with one of the most battered economies and worst rights records, to be chairman of the Commission on Sustainable Development.
Thursdays election in the General Assembly chose 14 new members for the Human Rights Council, which has 47 members and was formed last year to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.
The countries elected were Angola, Bolivia, Bosnia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Madagascar, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Qatar, Slovenia and South Africa.
The only other contested race was for one of the Western European seats, where Italy defeated Denmark in a runoff.
The United States decided not to be a candidate for the council last year and again this year, saying it thought that the body, while better than its predecessor, fell short of being credible and effective. There was also concern that given the hostility in the United Nations to American actions in Iraq, the United States might not win a place if it ran.
Steve Crawshaw, the United Nations advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said his group had been particularly galvanized by the prospect of Belarus on the council.
Belaruss track record is frankly appalling, he said. It has no real civil society, no freedom of expression; its elections have been deemed absolutely not to be free or fair. There is no breathing space, and the U.N. special envoy to Belarus has been blocked from visiting the country.
Asked why Bosnia, a country with a recent past of rights abuses, was a better candidate, he said: Bosnias record is far from perfect. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized it on a number of issues, but Belarus is simply in a league of its own.
Earlier this month, two watchdog groups, UN Watch and Freedom House, expressed disapproval of Angola, Egypt and Qatar, which won seats on Thursday. All of them, the two groups said, are authoritarian regimes with negative U.N. voting records on rights issues and are not qualified to be council members.