Chile’s Bachelet to be next UN human rights chief

United Nations: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres today nominated Chile’s twice-serving president and prominent women’s rights advocate Michelle Bachelet to be the global body’s next human rights chief.

Bachelet, 66, will succeed Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who had been one of the most outspoken critics of abuses by the governments in many countries.

Following consultations with the Chairs of the regional groups of Member States, Guterres informed the General Assembly of his intention to appoint Bachelet as the next United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Her name now goes forward for consideration and approval by the 193-member UN General Assembly. Bachelet, a women’s rights champion, ended her second four-year term as President earlier this year, having already held the post between 2006 and 2010.

She was the first woman to be elected to Chile’s highest office. After her first term, she came to New York as the first-ever Executive Director of the UN gender equality office, UN-Women.

She also held ministerial portfolios in the Chilean Government as Minister of Defence (2002-2004) and Minister of Health (2000-2002). The UN Human Rights High Commissioner is the principal official who speaks out for human rights across the whole UN system, strengthening human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality; fighting discrimination in all its forms; strengthening accountability and the rule of law; widening the democratic space and protecting the most vulnerable from all forms of human rights abuses.

Al-Hussein will step down from his role at the end of this month. He served a single term, beginning in 2014. During his tenure, al-Hussein had been outspoken in his criticism of abuses in dozens of countries from Myanmar and Hungary to the US.

At a farewell news conference at UN headquarters this month, he had said he does not regret speaking out against human rights abuses as “silence does not earn you any respect – none.”

In June, he released the first-ever report on Kashmir in which he called for a commission of inquiry by the Human Rights Council to conduct an independent, international investigation into the human rights situation.

India had rejected that report, terming it as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated” and a selective compilation of largely unverified information. In a strong reaction, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had said the report is “overtly prejudiced,” seeks to build a “false narrative” and violates the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Headquartered in Geneva, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is mandated to promote and protect the universal exercise and full realisation of human rights across the world as established in the UN Charter.

Bachelet’s nomination received cautious reactions from diplomats and human rights organisations. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the US had withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council in part because of the Council’s consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular.

“The failures of the Human Rights Council make the Secretary-General’s selection of a new High Commissioner for Human Rights all the more important,” she said.

Haley said that the Human Rights Commissioner can have a strong voice on these critical issues, even when the Human Rights Council fails to live up to its name. It is incumbent on the Secretary-General’s choice, Bachelet, to avoid the failures of the past.

“The UN has failed to adequately address major human rights crises in Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, or stop its chronic, disproportionate obsession with Israel. It is up to Ms Bachelet to speak out against these failures rather than accept the status quo. We hope that she does. The United States will,” she said.

Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said that if selected, Bachelet will be taking on one of the world’s most difficult jobs at a moment when human rights are under widespread attack.

“As a victim herself, she brings a unique perspective to the role on the importance of a vigorous defence of human rights. People worldwide will depend on her to be a public and forceful champion, especially where offenders are powerful,” he said.

The Trump administration withdrew from the Human Rights Council in June. Haley had called the Council a “cesspool of political bias” that disproportionately takes aim at Israel and protects many rights abusers.

Al-Hussein’s office had also criticised the White House over the separation of young children from parents at the country’s borders amid a government crackdown on illegal immigration. He had cited remarks by the president of the American Association of Pediatrics that locking the children up separately from their parents constituted “government-sanctioned child abuse.”