UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet went head to head with Israel and China during her last days in office, leaving a contentious four-year record in her wake.
That she chose to comment on Israel during her last 48 hours, out of all the 193 UN nations, felt symbolic to the country’s supporters who have long charged her office and the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) under its auspices with being biased against the Jewish state.
Bachelet this week took Israel to task for not issuing visas to her staff. “This raises the question of what exactly the Israeli authorities are trying to hide,” she asked.
Israel’s Mission to the UN in Geneva immediately accused her office of being a “mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority.”
Even the US weighed in on the exchange, with its Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Michele Taylor noting that Bachelet had spoken up on this issue, but remained silent when human rights expert Miloon Kothari, who is attached to her office, spoke of the “Jewish Lobby.”
Taylor tweeted that she was “disappointed” by Bachelet’s statement “singling out Israel, while staying silent following unacceptable antisemitic remarks by a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Israel. This only perpetuates the anti-Israel bias within the HRC.”
Bachelet, who became high commissioner in 2018, is the former President of Chile, the first woman to hold that leadership role in her country.
She is the eighth high commissioner since the post was created in 1994 and the fourth woman to hold that office. None of the commissioners have continued on to a second term. The longest-serving commissioner was Navi Pillay, who was in office for six years from 2008-2014.
Bachelet’s successor, who will be appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and confirmed by the UN General Assembly in New York, has not yet been named.
In the interim, Nada Al-Nashif of Jordan will be the acting high commissioner.
A contentious time in human rights history
THE OUTGOING commissioner was in office during a particularly contentious time in the history of human rights, which included the US pullback from Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s forced imprisonment of over a million Uyghurs and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The work on human rights never ends... it is really very frustrating and sometimes you feel that the world is not getting any better,” Bachelet told reporters during her final press conference earlier this month.
She spoke of how the pandemic had limited her efforts and that of her office when it came to advancing human rights.
“I would have liked to do more” and more would have been possible, she said,” if we had not had COVID-19” which limited movement.
But it was not just the pandemic, but rather the structure of the UN itself that provided built-in limits to the impact she could achieve. UN action is largely driven by member states and the face of her office is often represented by the UN Human Rights Council, which from its inception has approved more resolutions against Israel than any other UN member state.
As High Commissioner Bachelet has little power over those texts, including the highly contentious one which created a permanent “UN Independent Commission of Inquiry” into Israeli alleged human rights abuses. The COI plans to investigate the Jewish state for the crime of apartheid.
Her relationship to Israel while in office is better expressed by the actions she herself took or failed to take and the statements she issued. Israel broke its ties with her in 2020 over her decision to execute a UNHRC resolution that mandated that she publish a blacklist of companies engaging in business with Jewish entities and businesses that operate over the pre-1967 lines.
Analysis of Bachelet's statements
TO UNDERSTAND her attitude toward Israel, the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch analyzed critical statements she made at her own initiation about democratic and non-democratic countries.
The watchdog group compiled a chart about the statements in a report it intends to publish next week, a draft copy of which was sent to The Jerusalem Post.
When it came to critical statements against democratic countries, Israel topped the list, with Bachelet issuing 14 comments against the Jewish state during her time in office, followed by 10 statements against the United States and three against Poland. In the Israel statements, she used strong language eight times and praised it in only one, whereas when speaking of the US she used strong language against it four times and praised it five times.
When it came to non-democratic countries, Bachelet was the most critical of Myanmar, against which she initiated statements 17 times, followed by 15 statements against Sudan, 14 against Syria, 12 against Nicaragua, Libya and Iran and 11 against Russia.
UN Watch noted that she refrained from talking against Russian action in Ukraine until it invaded earlier this year.
“Bachelet was swift in condemning Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Since February 2022, she has initiated eight criticisms of Putin’s government, seven on the war itself and one on Russia’s arrests of anti-war protesters inside Russia. Five of these were strong,” UN Watch said.
Until her last days in office, Bachelet issued only six statements critical of China according to the NGO. When she did, those statements ignored the forced imprisonment of the Uyghurs, it said.
Bachelet's actions against China
BUT IN the end, it is her actions against China for which Bachelet is most likely to be remembered. In May 2022, she became the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China, a move that initially drew accolades but then concern that the trip would become a propaganda exercise when she delayed any publication of a report about her trip.
There was no mandate for such a report and the prospect of one was solely at her initiative.
Bachelet was blunt in explaining that she had been under pressure from China and other countries not to publish a critical report. The UN in general has been largely silent on the forced imprisonment of over a million Uyghurs. The UNHRC, for example, has issued no resolutions against Beijing and has not called for any fact-finding missions to investigate the situation.
Social media was filled through Wednesday night with attacks against Bachelet, fearing she would leave office without the report, which she published only at the last moment.
It did not accuse China of genocide, as countries such as the US have done. But it did state that “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” China has denied the accusation and issued a 131-page response.
The deputy advocacy director of London-based NGO Human Rights Watch, John Fisher, said of the report that it was a strong document. “One of the tests of a high commissioner is their willingness to stand up to even the most powerful state,” adding that it’s important that the next human rights commissioner be willing to hold powerful states to account.
Reuters contributed to this report.