The United States has launched a last-minute scramble for votes to secure its spot on the UN Human Rights Council in an election Monday.

US diplomats are said to be "nervous" as they compete with Germany, Greece, Ireland and Sweden for three seats among 18 on the panel to be picked by the United Nations General Assembly.

The 47-member council has taken on a steadily higher profile since it was created six years ago, but the Western nations group is the only one that will hold a competitive poll for seats.

In the run-up to the election, rights groups criticized the behind-closed-doors deals by Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe that will see countries such as Pakistan, Venezuela and Ethiopia guaranteed seats. Russia, China and Cuba, often taken to task for their rights records, will leave the council at the end of the year.

The Geneva-based council's new importance could be seen by the stepped up lobbying for spots.

Germany sent Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle to New York this week to press his country's case.

"This is really a key issue, human rights, for us," Westerwelle told a reception for UN ambassadors.

"This is important for the German government, important for the chancellor, important for my work as foreign minister," he said.

The Human Rights Council should not be a venue for making "sweeping allegations," the minister added. "Developed countries do not have a monopoly on safeguarding human rights."

"We want to act as a bridge builder. Cooperation not confrontation is the motto which guides our action."

The United States, coming to the end of its first three-year term on the council, has had to launch an all-out campaign for votes because of its late decision to seek a second seat.

"The United States has a strong diplomatic machine. They are lobbying in every capital and in New York, but all the others started first so they are nervous," said one UN diplomat.

"Despite its highly effective engagement in the Human Rights Council, the US faces a tough yet healthy competition," said Philippe Bolopion, a United Nations specialist for Human Rights Watch.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the UN Watch monitoring group, said the United States had been "polling last" in some unofficial surveys.

In a pitch for ballots, Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, highlighted Washington's stance on human rights at a reception for other envoys this week.

The United States made a 30-point list of pledges in a statement to council members that emphasized US action to get a special investigator named on rights in Iran, as well as domestic US legislation on the rights of gays and lesbians.

The United States committed "to be a strong advocate for all people around the world who suffer from abuse and oppression and a stalwart defender of courageous individuals across the globe who work, often at great personal risk, on behalf of the rights of others," said the statement.

While all 193 UN members will decide the western group's representation, the other seats were picked in advance in regional conclaves.

Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya and Sierra Leone will join for Africa; Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Korea and United Arab Emirates for Asia; Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela for Latin America and the Caribbean; and Estonia and Montenegro for Eastern Europe.

The regional groups "have pre-cooked this election by offering as many candidates as they have been allotted seats, making a mockery of the standard driven process envisioned by the General Assembly when it created the Human Rights Council," said Bolopion.

"This means that questionable candidates such as Ethiopia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates or Venezuela, to name a few, will join the council without even having to make the case that they "uphold the highest standards" of human rights, as required under the General Assembly resolution that established the council."

The new nations will take up their seats on January 1.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]