Leadership of UN human rights body becomes proxy battle for world powers

A council president aligned with states hostile to reform would be in a position to steer the council toward other business. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (NYTIMES) - The annual choice of who will steer the United Nations' top human rights organisation is usually done quietly and by consensus.

For months, this year's selection seemed to follow that script.

Until a week ago, that is, when an unexpected contest emerged over the 2021 presidency of the organisation, the UN Human Rights Council.

The position rotates by region and is due to be filled next year by a member of the Asia-Pacific bloc of countries.

The dispute over the council presidency is pitting some of the United Nations' most powerful member states against tiny Pacific Island nations and is playing out as UN members jockey for influence in anticipation of a new, more engaged US administration.

For months, the only announced candidate to lead the council next year was Fiji's UN ambassador, Ms Nazhat Shameem Khan.

But three days before the deadline for applications, another member of the regional bloc, Bahrain, tossed its hat in the ring and told Fiji to step aside.

Geneva-based diplomats interpret opposition to Fiji's candidacy as an effort by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to put the council's presidency in the hands of a compliant state as the role of the United States takes new shape under the incoming Biden administration.

China, in particular, has tried to take advantage of America's absence from the council to expand its influence.

The issue has particular resonance as 2021 looms.

Western governments hope that the US will reengage with the council under President-elect Joe Biden, filling a vacuum left when Mr Donald Trump's administration walked out on the body in 2018.

They want the council to reconsider why Israel is the only nation treated as a standing item on its agenda.

They also hope to introduce tougher rules for council membership.

A council president aligned with states hostile to reform would be in a position to steer the council toward other business, sidelining US interests along the way.

Fiji's Prime Minister, Mr Frank Bainimarama, far from backing down, has been contacting fellow Pacific Island leaders to rally support for his country's candidacy.

On Thursday, the Marshall Islands said it would reject any candidate but Fiji.

Qatar, which is at odds with Saudi Arabia, said it would also oppose the candidacy of Bahrain and its ambassador, Mr Yusuf Abdulkarim Bucheeri.

That could set the stage for a vote by the bloc in the coming weeks.

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