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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Michelle Bachelet set to become UN human rights chief

Two-time Chilean president selected to succeed Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, diplomats say

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet is expected to be appointed the next UN human rights chief. AFP
Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet is expected to be appointed the next UN human rights chief. AFP

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who endured torture under the Pinochet regime, is set to become the next UN human rights chief after Jordan's Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein completes his four year-term this month.

Diplomats said UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed told a meeting of ambassadors this week that Ms Bachelet, 66, had agreed to take on the role, although her appointment must first be endorsed by the General Assembly.

A two-time president who ranks among the world's most powerful women in politics, Ms Bachelet also served in 2010 as the first director of UN Women, the agency promoting gender equality worldwide.

She would step into a position that has drawn much controversy under Mr Al Hussein, a sharp critic of US policies under President Donald Trump, who decided not to seek a second term after losing support from powerful countries.

He told staff in a message that "in the current geopolitical context", to stay "might involve bending a knee in supplication".

During a farewell news conference last week, Mr Al Hussein defended his no-holds-barred approach and said his advice to his successor would be to "be fair and don't discriminate against any country" and "just come out swinging".

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Rights groups had expressed concern that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres would seek to appoint someone less vocal as the next human rights chief.

"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," said Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.

"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."

The daughter of a general who opposed Augusto Pinochet's overthrow of president Salvador Allende, Ms Bachelet was arrested in 1975 and held for several weeks at the infamous Villa Grimaldi interrogation and torture centre in Santiago.

"I was mainly tortured psychologically, and some beating, but they didn't 'grill' me," she said in a 2014 interview, using prisoners' slang for electric shocks administered to detainees.

"I was lucky compared to so many others. Many of them died," she said in the interview, one of the few times that she has discussed the ordeal.

The paediatrician and socialist became Chile's first woman president in 2006. She served another four-year term from 2014.

Last year, Mr Guterres appointed her to a high-level UN panel on mediation that provides him with advice on UN peace efforts.

The UN chief described her as a "long-time champion of women's rights" with a "history of dynamic global leadership, highly honed political skills and a recognised ability to create consensus".

Born in Santiago, Ms Bachelet was studying medicine when she was detained for several weeks. After her release, she went into exile with her mother to Australia and then moved to East Germany.

She returned to Chile in 1979, but was prevented from working as a doctor for political reasons. She continued studying, specialising in paediatrics and public health.

After democracy was restored to Chile in 1990, she worked for the health ministry and in 2000 was appointed health minister. Four years later she was appointed defence minister.

As president, Ms Bachelet offered a dramatic break from Chile's highly conservative political class. She reformed the pension system and improved health and social services, focusing on Chile's working poor.