The UN Human Rights Council elected Fiji's ambassador as its 2021 president in an unprecedented secret ballot after a diplomatic stand-off blocked the usual consensus decision.
Fiji's ambassador in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan, who served as the council's vice president in 2020 and is considered a rights champion, won with 29 out of 47 votes.
She ran against two other candidates from the UN's Asia-Pacific regional group of countries: Bahrain's ambassador Yusuf Abdulkarim Bucheeri and his counterpart from Uzbekistan, Ulugbek Lapasov, who received 14 and four votes respectively.
Fiji's win was hailed by rights groups which had voiced concerns over the records of the two other countries.
"The comprehensive defeat of Bahrain and Uzbekistan demonstrates that there should be no place among the council's president or vice presidents for representatives of states that restrict, criminalise and commit reprisals" against rights defenders, Phil Lynch, head of the International Service for Human Rights, told AFP.
The council's presidency rotates each year between the regions and the candidate is typically agreed upon by consensus within each regional group.
This year, though, the Asia-Pacific group due to take the helm failed to agree on a candidate -- or even on holding a vote within their group.
That meant the council, which for the first time in its 15-year history began the year with no president, was forced to hold Friday's unprecedented vote among all 47 members.
During the vote, each country representative was ushered separately into the large and virtually empty Assembly Hall at the United Nations' European headquarters, and ushered to the seat bearing their country's nameplate.
They filled in their paper ballot, then took it up to a stage at the front of the room and deposited it in a wooden ballot box.
The Fijian ambassador had long been expected to ascend to the helm without opposition, being the only candidate for the post until early last month.
But sources close to deliberations said China, Russia and Saudi Arabia and others baulked at the widely-expected appointment, and orchestrated an opposing candidacy by Bahrain.
Uzbekistan later threw its hat into the ring after the two other candidates both met with opposition from some countries.
Among the official objections was that Fiji had presented its candidacy too early, prior to elections of this year's council members.
However, rights groups said the opposition was likely driven by the Pacific island nation's outspokenness on rights issues.
A senior Chinese diplomat rejected allegations that Beijing had opposed Fiji or urged others to do so, insisting this was a "misinterpretation of our position".
Asking not to be named, the diplomat stressed that China could "accept any of the three candidates" on the ballot.
Russian and Saudi Arabian representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
While the stand-off over a largely procedural position might seem surprising, rights groups said Fiji's strong stance since joining the council in 2019 might have raised concerns that Khan would be an "active" president.
The president mainly oversees council meetings, but is also in charge of appointing the independent experts who investigate countries' alleged rights abuses, and can determine how hard to crack down on cases of state intimidation against those who cooperate with the body.
Concerns over a strong council president may also have been exacerbated ahead of a year when the United States is expected to return, after outgoing President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018, analysts said.
"The ongoing attempts by China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and their ilk to defang the Human Rights Council is testament to the lengths they will go to avoid the sting of its condemnation," Human Rights Watch chief Ken Roth told AFP.
Fiji's win Friday showed the council would not bow to such pressure, he said, describing it as "a victory for those who believe, shockingly, that the UN Human Rights Council should be used to promote human rights".
Geneva, Switzerland | AFP