US withdrawal leaves vacuum at UN Human Rights council

GENEVA, June 20 (Reuters) - China, Britain and the European Union lamented on Wednesday Washington's decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council as Western countries began looking for a substitute for the coveted seat.

The United States withdrew on Tuesday from what it called the "hypocritical and self-serving" forum over what it called chronic bias against its close ally Israel and a lack of reform after a year of negotiations.

Washington's retreat - officially notified to the world body on Wednesday - is the latest U.S. rejection of multilateral engagement after it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. delegation's seat was empty and the nameplate removed at the end of the day.

"It is bad news, it is bad news for this council, it is bad news I think for the United Nations. It is bad news, I think for the United States, it is bad news for everybody who cares about human rights," Slovenian President Borut Pahor told the 47-member forum in Geneva where the U.S. seat was empty.

The European Union, Australia and Britain echoed his comments.

"We have lost a member who has been at the forefront of liberty for generations. While we agree with the U.S. on the need for reform, our support for this Human Rights Council remains steadfast, and we will continue to advance the cause of reform from within its ranks," Britain's ambassador Julian Braithwaite said.

Bulgaria's Ambassador Deyana Kostadinova, speaking on behalf of the EU, said the United States had been a "strong partner" at the talks. Its decision "risks undermining the role of the U.S. as a strong advocate and supporter of democracy on the world stage," she added.

China's foreign ministry expressed regret, with state media saying the image of the United States as a defender of rights was "on the verge of collapse."

Diplomats have said the U.S. withdrawal could bolster Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as U.N. interference in sovereign issues.

The Tibet Advocacy Coalition, whose activists seek to raise attention to the situation in the autonomous region, said in a statement the U.S. decision "will allow China much more room to obfuscate and undermine the U.N. human rights system."

Now the Trump administration has formally sent notification of its decision, the U.N. General Assembly will organize elections for a replacement to assume the U.S. term through 2019.

The Western group of countries in the council is expected to discuss the issue at their weekly meeting on Thursday, diplomats said.

When the council was created in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration shunned the body.

New Zealand, which stepped aside to allow the United States to win election to the Council in 2009 under President Barack Obama, may be a good choice as a replacement, two diplomats said. "There would be a certain symmetry," one told Reuters.

Canada and the Netherlands were other possibilities, although no country has stepped forward yet, they said.

(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Dan Williams in Jerusalem Editing by Alison Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky)