Former two-time Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was unanimously approved on Friday by the General Assembly in New York as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a Geneva-based post whose previous office holders have often had a contentious relationship with Israel.
The commissioner’s role is supervisory, and carries out functions designated by the UN Human Rights Council. However, the commissioner does not directly control the council itself.
“Ms. Bachelet is a pioneer, a visionary, a woman of principle, and a great human rights leader for these troubled times,” tweeted UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who had nominated her for the position.
In spite of the accolades, Bachelet, 66, has come under fire for failing to call out some of the Latin American abusive regimes.
Among the immediate issues on her plate is the “black list,” which the commissioner’s office has been compiling of companies that do business with areas of Israel over the pre-1967 lines; the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Her appointment comes at a time when the US is pressing the UNHRC and the High Commissioner’s office to undertake steps to reform their treatment of human rights issues, particularly anti-Israeli bias and the shielding of countries known for human rights abuses, such as Cuba and Venezuela.
The US withdrew from its seat on the 47-member UNHRC earlier this year to protest those issues.
“The Commissioner can have a strong voice on these critical issues, even when the Human Rights Council fails to live up to its name,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said prior to the UNGA’s approval of Bachelet. “It is incumbent on the Secretary-General’s choice, Ms. 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 added.
Her words were read out at the UN General Assembly by US Deputy Ambassador Stefanie Amadeo.
Bachelet replaces Jordan’s outspoken Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who is stepping down at the end of August after a four-year term.
The veteran Chilean politician is her country’s first female president and defense minister, and is known for her strong positions in support of women’s rights, including support for abortion. She has also advocated for gay rights.
She is the former head of UN Women, a body that advocates for gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Bachelet, a victim of torture under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, was a pediatrician before she turned to politics.
Her amiable style, welfare policies and steady economic growth in one of the region’s most developed countries made her popular during her two terms as president, with the last term ending in March of this year.
Zeid told reporters in New York earlier this month that he did not seek a second term because he did not believe he would have the support of key world powers, including the US, China and Russia.
He has been strongly critical of some of US 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 his first term in 2014. “Silence does not earn you any respect. We do not bring shame on governments, they shame themselves,” he said.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said he welcomed Zeid’s departure, explaining he “never missed a chance to invent falsehoods and lies when it comes to Israel.”
Danon said, “From many of his statements, you would be forgiven for thinking he considered Hamas a welfare, not a terrorist, organization. During his tenure, the HRC became a theater of the absurd, with hypocrisy and double standards rampant among its proceedings and reports.”
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,” Neuer said. “But she has a controversial record when it comes to her support for the human rights abusing governments [which] rule Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and we need to know how she plans to address these urgent situations before her nomination is voted upon.”
In the past, she has issued positive statements about former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Neuer said, noting her silence about the killings of unarmed protesters in Nicaragua.
Amnesty International’s Director of International Advocacy Isha Dyfan said that Bachelet’s nomination comes a “tumultuous time for the human rights.”
“Brutal and protracted conflicts are raging in many countries, while a rising tide of authoritarianism is undermining the human rights standards many have long taken for granted. It will take a strong and principled leader, willing to speak truth to power and ready to mobilize resources and political will, to defend our rights in this challenging climate,” Dyfan said.
She also called on the UN to use a more transparent and public process when making appointments to such posts.
It is essential that leaders are “selected in a way that is representative of the fairness and transparency that [the UN] aims to advance around the world,” Dyfan said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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