Fiji, the favourite of Western nations, won the presidency of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, beating Bahrain and Uzbekistan in a secret ballot that resolved a tense deadlock over the selection.
The vote was called after an impasse that meant the Council, the only intergovernmental global body to promote and protect human rights worldwide, began meetings this week leaderless for the first time in its 15-year history.
The presidency rotates geographically with each region typically making a selection by consensus but members of the Asia Pacific group could not agree, forcing the first-ever secret ballot in the Council.
Fiji's Nazahat Shameen Khan, a British-educated former High Court judge, won with 29 votes versus 14 for Bahrain and 4 for Uzbekistan, Vice-President Ali Ibn Abi Talib Abdelrahman Mahmoud told a nearly-empty UN chamber where delegates voted one-by-one due to Covid-19 measures.
The deadlock over the presidency came at the start of a year that is widely expected to see the United States rejoin after quitting the forum in 2018, and with a review of the Council's activities expected to begin.
Observers and diplomats saw Fiji's rivals as being backed by Russia, China and Saudi Arabia although a Chinese diplomat said he would be happy for any candidate to win. Officials from Russia and Saudi Arabia did not respond to requests for comment.
China's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Chen Xu, congratulated Fiji in a tweet on Friday and pledged support.
The 47-member Council does not make legally binding decisions but it can authorise probes into alleged rights violations by mandating international fact-finding missions.
Marc Limon of the Universal Rights Group think-tank, welcomed Khan's selection.
"It is important for the Council to have a country like Fiji that has a positive record on human rights and a good story to tell," he said, alluding to the collapse of the former UN rights body after Muammar Gaddafi's Libya led it.
A diplomat said he expected debates to be more intense this year, given that Russia and China return to the Council after periods off it.
"I expect a lot of heated debates and the potential for acrimony," he said, saying China's actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang could be flashpoints.