Fiji wins top job at UN rights body after power struggle between members

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan (Credit: UN Geneva)

Fiji’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan has been elected as president of the Human Rights Council, resolving a deadlock that saw the body resume proceedings this week without a leader for the first time in its 15-year history.

The UN Human Rights Council has elected Fiji’s permanent representative to the UN as its 2021 president following an unexpected dispute from some of the council’s most powerful states that threw the candidacy into disarray.

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s chief diplomat in Geneva, was elected this morning via a secret ballot. Khan beat candidates representing Bahrain and Uzbekistan - backed by Russia and China - to the position in the unconventional vote held to solve a deadlock caused by member states grappling for power over the global human rights body.

Out of the 47 ballots cast, Khan received a majority with 29 votes, while Bahrain’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva Yusuf AbdulKarim Bucheeri received 14 votes and Uzbekistan’s Ulugbek Lapasov received four votes.

Why is this significant? The council’s presidency rotates annually between regions, and is typically agreed upon between member states by consensus and without fuss. In 2021, it was due to be filled by a member of the Asia-Pacific bloc of countries.

Until recently, Fiji’s chief diplomat in Geneva Ambassador Khan, who is the country’s first female high court judge, a former prosecutor and well regarded as a human rights champion, was the only announced candidate to lead the council this year.

Why was this year different? In November, an unexpected challenge emerged when Bahrain - backed by new council members China and Russia - proposed its own candidate three days before the deadline for applications. Uzbekistan’s UN representative was also put forward, but Khan did not step down.

The last-minute dispute from Bahrain was widely seen as a strategic move from powerful member states jostling for influence ahead of the incoming Biden administration, which is expected to re-engage with the council after it was abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2018.

Bahrain is closely aligned with Russia and China, along with Saudi Arabia, who suffered an unsuccessful bid to join the council in October due to its dubious human rights record. Syria, aligned with Russia, also pledged to block Fiji.

It appears the bloc of countries were attempting to manoeuvre a state that would be more compliant with their own agendas into the position before the US vacuum is filled by the Biden administration. As a member for just two years, Fiji has backed investigations into reported abuses in Venezuela, Belarus, Syria and Yemen, drawing criticism from China.

The deadlock meant that the council resumed proceedings in Geneva this week without a leader for the first time in its 15-year history.

What does the next year have in store? Khan's election is a historic first for Fiji, who joined the council for the first time in 2019. There are hopes the position will help bring greater representation to the Pacific bloc on the global stage and promote rights that are of particular concern in the region, including the impact of climate change. Though the presidency holds little direct authority, it does have a significant influence over the council's priorities and agenda, and can authorise probes into human rights abuses.

Although Fiji's own human rights record has been criticised in the past over media freedoms, police brutality and restrictive legislation, Khan was well regarded as the next president by member nations. She succeeds the Austrian ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, who has overseen the council's two sessions completed during the Covid-19 pandemic.