UNITED NATIONS - By secret ballot, the General Assembly has elected by a narrow margin of four votes Fiji's UN Ambassador Peter Thomson as President of its seventy-first session, and he promised to make climate change his priority.

Thomson defeated Andreas Mavroyiannis of Cyprus, by a vote of 94 to 90, with 1 abstention. He will begin his one-year term in September, when Denmark's Mogens Lykketoft, the current president, ends his tenure.

The election of the 193-member Assembly President traditionally follows the system of geographical rotation, with respective regional groups, in this case Asia-Pacific States, putting forward a consensus candidate each year. If a group cannot reach consensus on a single nominee, the door is open for a rare secret-ballot vote.  The last time it occurred was in 2012, when the Eastern European States nominated two candidates. The timing of Thomson's election means he will oversee the process of searching for a new UN Secretary General to replace Ban Ki-moon, who is set to finish his second five-year term at the end of the year. Lykketoft, the current president of the assembly, has tried to make the method of choosing a new Secretary General more transparent, with candidates facing question-and-answer sessions in public.

Thomson is the first assembly president to come from the Pacific island states. "It's a great moment for the Pacific islands," Thomson told the General Assembly. "We bring special perspectives on climate change and on oceans issues. You can expect me to be vocal on these issues."

Fiji was the first country to ratify the Paris climate deal on global warming. Following his election, Thomson thanked Mavroyiannis for a fair contest.

He said the universal “high purpose” of the seventy-first session would be momentum on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving progress on all 17 Goals, he said. That would require transforming systems and overcoming intellectual barriers, and without its implementation, the future would be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, in a surprise development, Israel on Monday was elected as chairman of UN General Assembly's Legal Committee, the first time that the Jewish state will head one of the Assembly's six committees since joining the world body in 1949.

The Palestinians and Arab nations denounced Israel's election which came from a secret ballot in the Assembly.

The Legal Committee, or Sixth Committee, oversees issues related to international law. The General Assembly has six standing committees that report to it, on: disarmament, economic and financial issues, social and humanitarian matters, decolonization, the UN budget, and legal issues.  Israel was a candidate for the regional Western European and Others Group (WEOG) and received 109 out of 175 valid votes cast in the 193-nation assembly, with 23 abstentions and 14 invalid ballots. Sweden was runner-up with 10 votes. "This is a historic achievement for Israel," said Israel's UN Ambassador Danny Danon. "I am very proud to be the first Israeli to serve as the chairman of a committee."

Pakistan's Bilal Ahmad, a counsellor at the Pakistani Mission to the UN, was elected, by acclamation, one of three vice-chairmen of the Legal Committee.

Before the General Assembly's action, three representatives rejected Israel’s nomination by the Western European and other States and requested a vote by secret ballot.  The representative of Yemen asked that the Assembly take note of his delegation’s 9 June letter to the Committee, sent in his capacity as Chair of the Arab Group, whereby he indicated his Government had rejected the candidacy of Israel for the position of Chair and requested a vote by secret ballot.

The representative of Syria also took the floor, saying that Israel was an occupying force, which contradicted the United Nations Charter, and had continued to occupy Arab territories while it flouted many General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.

The representative of Kuwait, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, rejected the candidacy of Israel, which he said was an inappropriate choice to act as Chair of a committee that was specifically related to international law, of which it was in flagrant contempt.

Delegates made general statements about the secret ballot. The representative of Yemen, speaking again on behalf of the Arab Group, said Israel violated the United Nations Charter, international laws and United Nations resolutions. Israel had considered itself to be “above the law”. He regretted to say that there had been no alternative candidate and reaffirmed the Group’s rejection of Israel’s nomination.

The representative of Iran said Israel had violated international law, humanitarian law and many United Nations resolutions and had denied those actions, rejecting calls made by the international community. The decision to elect Danon of Israel undermined the credibility of the United Nations.

But the representative of the United States congratulated Danon on his election. Israel was rarely treated like any other country at the United Nations, he said, noting that votes had been called when that State had been nominated in the past.

Afterwards, the chief Palestinian delegate at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, complained about the results of the election, saying Arab and Muslim countries had tried to prevent an Israeli victory.

Speaking to reporters, Mansour described Israel as "the biggest violator of international law" and predicted that Danon's election was "threatening the work of the Sixth Committee."

He said the Arab League and 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation had opposed Israel's election.