GENEVA – The Pacific island of Fiji won elections Friday as chair of the United Nations’ highest human rights body, ending a mysterious proxy battle for China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to seek to bolster its influence by installing a more compliant candidate.
Fiji won decisively, with the support of 29 countries, in a secret ballot for the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, to avoid challenging Bahrain, which got 14 votes, and Uzbekistan, which got four.
The result puts the tiny, remote island state, which has a record of support for human rights initiatives, in a leadership position at a time of intense competition between states over accountability for rights violators.
China and Russia will return as members of the council in 2021, giving voice to two powerful nations that have faced widespread criticism over human rights violations. Human rights groups say the council has been effective in highlighting many of the worst crises, and they hope the incoming US administration of President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. will reinforce this role by re-engaging with the agency, which President Trump has resigned in 2018.
“A Fiji victory is a victory for those who believe that the Human Rights Council should be used to defend human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Fiji’s nomination was opposed by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, reflecting the determination of these and other authoritarian governments to obstruct the work of the Human Rights Council.”
The President of the Council has great influence over its priorities and the selection of independent experts to report human rights violators and their bad deeds. The president is also responsible for fending off states that seek to thwart the council’s work by cracking down on people who cooperate with its investigations.
Fiji announced its candidacy in July 2020, and initially running without opposition seemed like an opportunity for the position. Its ambassador, Nouzha Shamim Khan, a Cambridge-educated attorney who became the first female judge of the Supreme Court in Fiji, is highly respected in the diplomatic community in Geneva and was the Vice-Chair of the Council. At the Council, Fiji supported the investigations into the reports received Violations in VenezuelaAnd the Philippines, Belarus, Syria and Yemen.
These positions, which were fiercely opposed by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, appeared to have prompted Bahrain to submit a late bid for the position, leading to weeks of maneuvering within the Asia-Pacific group of nations to try to pressure Fiji to step down.
Rights activists have attacked Bahrain for cracking down on critics at home and for its refusal to cooperate with United Nations human rights bodies, which critics have said excluded their efforts.
“It was very draconian, and there was no claim of even supporting human rights,” Mr. Roth said, describing Bahrain’s attempt as a brazen attempt to install a candidate who was “going to do Saudi Arabia’s dirty work”.
As competition progressed towards voting in the council, as Fiji enjoyed strong support, China publicly reduced its opposition, issuing statements saying it would be satisfied with the election of any of the candidates, Fiji included.
But diplomats and rights groups say the outcome worries Beijing. China faces intense scrutiny at the United Nations over its imprisonment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and its ruthless crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
President-elect Biden has promised to return to multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, which President Trump has abandoned. Mr. Biden also promised to emphasize human rights in his foreign policy, but he did not take a public position on returning to the Council, which has influential critics in the United States, especially among supporters of Israel.
Mark Lemmon, director of the Geneva-based Global Rights Group, said Fiji’s success “would make it easier for Biden to bring the United States back to the council than to have a country with a poor human rights record on the job.”
Mr. Roth said Beijing has so far avoided direct criticism by the Human Rights Council, although that may change. A Security Council resolution last year to investigate systematic racism in the United States and other countries set a precedent for action targeting world powers.
“If Biden really makes an effort to rally other governments to condemn China, he might change that balance and for the first time we can see condemnation decisions on China come out of the council,” Mr. Roth said.