The UN Human Rights Council will this week hold an unprecedented secret ballot to pick its president after China and others blocked a candidate from Fiji considered a rights champion, sources and analysts said.
"There has been a standoff," a source close to the council who asked not to be named told AFP. "It is a very, very messy situation."
The dispute could underscore growing jostling in the top UN rights body by countries intent on steering it away from criticising nations over alleged abuses of individual rights and towards focusing on advances in economic and social rights.
The council's presidency rotates each year between regions and is typically agreed by consensus within each regional group.
This year, though, the Asia-Pacific group (APG) due to take the helm failed to agree on a candidate -- or even on holding a vote within the group.
That means the council, which for the first time in its 15-year history began the year with no president, will on Friday hold an unprecedented vote among all 47 members.
Sources close to deliberations said China, Russia and Saudi Arabia and others balked at the widely-expected appointment of Fiji's ambassador, and orchestrated an opposing candidacy.
Among the official objections was that Fiji had presented its candidacy too early, prior to elections of this year's council members, but rights groups said the opposition was likely driven by the Pacific island nation's outspokenness on rights issues.
"They would say that Fiji is too pro-Western," Marc Limon, head of the Universal Rights Group think-tank, told AFP.
"But I think in reality, their problem is that Fiji is pro-human rights, and has taken strong positions on the council."
A senior Chinese diplomat rejected allegations that China 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" now on the ballot.
Russian and Saudi Arabian representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
The Asia-Pacific group had been expected last month to anoint Fiji's ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, who served as vice president last year and was long the only candidate in the race.
But just days before the expected announcement on December 7, Bahrain announced the candidacy of its ambassador Yusuf Abdulkarim Bucheeri.
"We understand... that Bahrain came forward after being encouraged by states including China, Saudi Arabia and Russia," Phil Lynk, head of the International Service for Human Rights, told AFP.
While the standoff over a largely procedural position might seem surprising, he said there appeared to be concern that Fiji's strong stance on a number of issues 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.
Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, said the objection to Fiji was "a transparent effort to handicap the Human Rights Council."
"They prefer somebody like Bahrain, which is effectively a stooge of the Saudis, and hardly has any interest in promoting human rights, because Bahrain is a severe abuser itself," he told AFP.
Bahrain representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Fiji and Bahrain met with opposition from several countries, so a call was put out for a third candidate and Uzbekistan entered the fray.
None of them meanwhile managed to garner consensus support, forcing Friday's unprecedented vote before the full council.
The Chinese diplomat voiced frustration at the situation, adding that his country had urged all sides to "show flexibility."
"This is the first time that one regional group cannot reach agreement on a single candidate to nominate to the Human Rights Council," the diplomat said.
"That is very sad."
After all of the back-and-forth, observers said Fiji was expected to carry Friday's vote.
"Looking at the membership leanings, Fiji is likely to win," the source close to the council said.
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