Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

UN approves Michelle Bachelet as new human rights chief

Former Chilean president takes over from Jordan's Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

Michelle Bachelet addresses the UN General Assembly as Chile's president in 2016. AP Photo
Michelle Bachelet addresses the UN General Assembly as Chile's president in 2016. AP Photo

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was unanimously approved as the United Nations' next human rights chief on Friday and was immediately given a foretaste of the pressures she will face in the job.

Diplomats from the UN's 193 member states burst into applause after General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak, with a bang of his gavel, gave official approval by acclamation to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres' nominee.

"Deeply humbled and honored to announce my acceptance as the @UN's new High Commissioner for Human Rights. I thank Secretary General @antonioguterres and the General Assembly for entrusting me this important task," Ms Bachelet tweeted shortly after the assembly's approval.

Mr Guterres then touted Ms Bachelet's qualifications: the first female president of Chile, first head of the gender equality agency known as UN Women, "a survivor of brutality" by a Chilean dictator, and a physician who understood people's thirst for health and economic and social rights.

She has also "lived under the darkness of dictatorship", he said.

Ms Bachelet's father was imprisoned for treason for opposing the coup that ousted Marxist president Salvador Allende in September 1973. She and her mother were tortured in a secret prison for two weeks before they fled into exile. Her father, Gen Alberto Bachelet, died of cardiac arrest following months of torture.

Mr Guterres told reporters that Ms Bachelet takes office "at a time of grave consequence for human rights".

"Hatred and inequality are on the rise," he said. "Respect for international humanitarian and human rights law is on the decline. Space for civil society is shrinking. Press freedoms are under pressure."

Some of the pressures that Ms Bachelet will face were immediately evident in several speeches following her approval by the General Assembly.

US Minister-Counselor Stefaine Amadeo, speaking on behalf of the UN's host country, said "it is "incumbent" on Ms Bachelet to avoid what the United States called the failure of the UN human rights system.

She singled out the Geneva-based Human Rights Council's "consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the western hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular". She also cited UN failures "to adequately address major human rights crises" in Iran, North Korea and Congo.

Mohammad Hassani Nejad, a counselor in Iran's UN Mission, retorted that the biggest challenge for Ms Bachelet "is to make it clear that human rights is not a means in the foreign policy toolbox of policies against who they dislike".

He said the UN's high commissioner for human rights should speak out "for all victims", citing "migrant kids in cages, or the US-made bombs that kill kids on a daily basis".

Cuba's Deputy UN Ambassador Ana Silvia Rodriguez echoed Mr Nejad in speaking out against the polarisation and politicisation of human rights.

She accused the US of "flagrantly" violating human rights by imposing an economic and financial embargo on Cuba for decades, separating migrant parents and children and causing civilian deaths "by bombs and drone wars", as well as by "brutality and police abuse, particularly against the African-American population".

Venezuela's UN Ambassador Samuel Moncada said his country would only believe the United States supports human rights when it stopped separating Latin American children and parents, stopped using drones and "claiming the use of torture as legitimate practice", ended discrimination against the people of Puerto Rico, and stopped "insulting entire nations".

He called US threats to use military force against Venezuela "the expression of the most racist and cruel government in the recent history of this country".

"They have no moral right to talk about this topic [human rights] because this hatred has led them to be a threat to international peace and security," he said.

Ms Bachelet will replace Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat and member of the country's royal family whose four-year term ends August 31.

Mr Gutteres paid tribute to Mr Al Hussein on Friday "for his leadership, passion, courage and skill" as high commissioner.

Mr Al Hussein, who has faced criticism from many quarters for being too outspoken, told a farewell news conference last week that his office does not "bring shame on governments, they shame themselves".

He stressed that "silence does not earn you any respect — none".

He said he would give his successor the same advice that his predecessor, Navi Pillay, gave him: "Be fair and don't discriminate against any country" and "just come out swinging".

Updated: August 11, 2018 03:44 PM