By J Nastranis
Moments after the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed on August 10 to appoint Chile’s former President Michelle Bachelet as the seventh UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted: “Ms. Bachelet is a pioneer, a visionary, a woman of principle, and a great human rights leader for these troubled times.” He had had put forward her candidacy to the General Assembly on August 8.
The United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK) Executive Director, Natalie Samarasinghe, agreed: she is “certainly a strong choice”, and added: “She has experience at the highest level of government in Chile, at the highest level of administration within the UN system as the first head of UN Women, and of working with civil society under the shadow of oppression.”
Before Guterres’ announcement, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: “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.”
He added: “As a victim herself, she brings a unique perspective to the role on the importance of a vigorous defense of human rights. People worldwide will depend on her to be a public and forceful champion, especially where offenders are powerful.”
Guterres told reporters he was “delighted” by the news of her official appointment as Michelle Bachelet “has been as formidable a figure in her native Chile, as she has at the United Nations”.
Highlighting her role as the first leader of UN Women, between 2010 and 2013, he said she gave “that new entity a dynamic and inspiring start”. He also pointed to her remarkable career as “the first woman to serve as the country’s President, but also as a survivor of brutality by the authorities targeting her and her family, many decades ago”.
“She has lived under the darkness of dictatorship,” he continued. “As a physician, she knows the trials of people thirsting for health and yearning to enjoy other vital economic and social rights. And she knows the responsibilities of both national and global leadership.”
Following the announcement, Bachelet said she was “deeply humbled and honored” to have been entrusted with “this important task.”
As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and at a time when “hatred and inequality are on the rise,” the Secretary-General said it was vital to have a “strong advocate for all human rights” and he “could not think of a better choice”.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was created in 1993. The 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 abuse.
“Michelle Bachelet brings unique experience to the United Nations and to all of us, and is strongly committed to keeping human rights at the forefront of the work of the United Nations,” Guterres concluded. “She has my full confidence and support, and I ask all Member States and our partners to extend to her their support.”
Bachelet replaces Jordan’s outspoken Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who is stepping down on August 31 after a four-year term on the plea, as he told UN correspondents early August in New York, he did not believe he would have the support of key world powers, including the United States, China and Russia.
He has been strongly critical of some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies and his attacks on the media. “Someone said to me ‘just come out swinging’ and that’s what I did,” Zeid said of advice he was given when he started the job in 2014. “Silence does not earn you any respect.” He added: “We do not bring shame on governments, they shame themselves.”
Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein is heir to the abolished throne of the former Kingdom of Iraq and a junior member of the Jordanian royal family. The UN does not recognise royal titles in its officials, but when not serving with the UN he is therefore known as “Prince Zeid”. From 2000–2007 and again from 2010–2014 he was Jordan’s ambassador to the UN, and from 2007–2010 he was Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S.
In 2005 he was seconded to the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations to write the landmark “Zeid Report” on combatting Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN peacekeeping operations. He developed a reputation as a fearlessly outspoken and inspiring High Commissioner but was thought to be less effective as an administrator.
Guterres said Zeid had served with “leadership, passion, courage and skill” for the past four years, adding that he wished “to express my deep gratitude to my good colleague and friend.”
Zeid warmly welcomed Bachelet’s appointment. “She has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion, and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful High Commissioner,” he said on August 10 in a statement, adding that the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) “looks forward to welcoming her and working under her leadership for the promotion and protection of all human rights, for everyone, everywhere.”
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said he welcomed Zeid’s departure, explaining that he “never missed a chance to invent falsehoods and lies when it comes to Israel.”
Following the General Assembly decision, several delegations delivered congratulatory remarks on Bachelet’s appointment.
Chile’s delegate said the appointment is critically important as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and at a time when human rights norms face challenges. He stressed the need for the international community to uphold human rights.
Iran’s delegate asked Bachelet to lead her office in accordance of relevant resolutions, making it clear that human rights is “not a tool for powerful countries to use against their dislikes” and to address politicization and polarization stemming from such practices.
Several delegations stressed the need to support UN Commissioner’s office both financially and politically.
Stefanie Amadeo, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley’s deputy said: “The United States’ withdrawal from the Human Rights Council was not a withdrawal from our commitment to advancing universal human rights within the UN system and around the world.” She was referring to U.S. decision to withdraw from its seat on the 47-member UNHRC earlier in 2017.
“The failures of the Human Rights Council to address some of the most egregious human rights abuses of our day make the Secretary-General’s selection of a new High Commissioner for Human Rights all the more important,” Amadeo said.
“The High Commissioner can have a strong voice on these critical issues, especially when the Human Rights Council fails to live up to its name. It is incumbent on the Secretary-General’s choice, Ms. Bachelet, to avoid the failures of the UN human rights system in the past, particularly the Human Rights Council’s consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela, and Cuba in particular,” she added,
“The UN system 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,” the U.S. delegate declared.
Cuba’s delegate said that the United States was availing of the meeting as an opportunity to “twist reality”. Cuba had signed on to more human rights treaties than the United States. She described how the U.S. violates human rights, a view which was also shared by the representative of Venezuela, who said that country has no moral right to preach.
Also speaking were the delegations of Madagascar (on behalf of the African States), Solomon Islands (on behalf of the Asia‑Pacific States), Estonia (on behalf of the Eastern European States), Argentina (on behalf of Latin American and Caribbean States), New Zealand (also speaking for Australia and Canada), European Union, United Kingdom and Switzerland.
UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer said he was concerned by Bachelet’s support for governments with known records of human rights abuses.
“There’s no question that the former Chilean president is a highly educated and intelligent politician, who also brings important negotiating skills. But she has a controversial record when it comes to her support for the human rights abusing governments who rule Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and we need to know how she plans to address these urgent situations before her nomination is voted upon,” Neuer said.
Against this backdrop, political observers point to what Mary Robinson, who served one four-year term and one one-year term (1997-2002) as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in an interview with UNA-UK: “The one office that has to always speak truth to power.”
She told UNA-UK in an interview on July 17, 2018: “I had decided not to go forward for a second seven-year term as President and shortly after I made that decision, the first High Commissioner, Ayala Lasso, resigned suddenly. He went back to Ecuador to be Foreign Minister… The Irish government canvassed very heavily for me. It was quite contested… And then in July 1997, Kofi Annan nominated me and I was shortly afterwards approved by the General Assembly.
“Then I went to see Kofi in New York and he put great pressure on me to start in September because he wanted the High Commissioner to be there for the UN General Assembly. I eventually succumbed to that pressure because I was afraid that if I didn’t he might change his mind and not appoint me. I regretted it later because it wasn’t a good idea to leave the Presidency early, it left a bad impression that I had somehow used the Presidency as a stepping stone to higher things, which wasn’t true. And once I got there it was clear these weren’t really ‘higher things’.”
UNA-UK notes that Bachelet was one of the first names mentioned in connection to the role, many months ago, before the process was publicly launched. “Yet the appointment has taken place under unprecedented time pressure, with her now having just three weeks to prepare for the role – less than any previous High Commissioner.”