The United States has decided not to seek membership on the newly-created U.N. Human Rights Council this year. Human rights groups have sharply criticized the decision.

In making the announcement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would remain committed to providing political and financial backing to the new Human Rights Council, and would probably run for a seat next year.

He said in the meantime, Washington would be an active observer, working with other governments to ensure that the Council is as strong and effective as possible, and to prevent chronic rights abusers from gaining membership.

"We will support the council and will continue to fund it. We will work closely with partners in the international community to encourage the council to address serious cases of human rights abuses in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma, Sudan and North Korea," he said.

Human rights groups and some Democratic Members of Congress criticized the decision. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it "disappointing".

Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos of California called the move a "profound signal of U.S. isolation" and a "major retrenchment in America's long struggle to advance the cause of human rights".

A spokesman for Human Rights Watch called the decision "childish", and said that in light of alleged U.S. rights violations at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib detention facilities, it would have been hard for the United States to garner the 96 votes necessary to win a seat on the Council.

Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton rejected that idea. He said the decision was influenced more by the formula of geographical seat distribution, which limits the Western block of countries to seven seats while reserving the majority for African and Asian countries.

"I don't think it's a question of fearing we couldn't get enough votes. I think it's reality that a number of countries in the Western group, already exceeding the quota set up in the resolution, and by the way we didn't like the geographical distribution of seats in the Council because of the reduction of Western group seats, is that we take into account what happened in 2001 when there was a greater number of candidates than there were seats for the Western group and the United States was defeated and that would have meant either defeating other western group candidates or getting some of the rest of them to withdraw," he said.

Bolton said the United States is likely to have more influence over the council by staying on the outside for the first year. "Not running gives us the ability to increase our leverage, to have the council pointed in the right direction. In fact, if we had run this year people would have said "Ah, business as usual." That would have had a negative effect," he said.

The United States was virtually alone last month in voting against the Council, calling for stricter standards to ensure rights abusers are prevented from joining.

The body it replaces, the old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, lost credibility in large part because countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Cuba were able to win seats and shield themselves from criticism.

Iran and Cuba are among 35 countries that have already declared their candidacy for seats on the new Council. Voting will be held May 9. To win a seat, a country must receive 96 votes, or an absolute majority in the 191-member General Assembly.