Michelle Bachelet

AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

Former Chilean President Named As Next U.N. Human Rights Chief

August 09, 2018 - 4:42 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres selected Chile's former President Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday to be the next U.N. human rights chief, a high profile and often controversial job that has sparked criticism from governments targeted for rights abuses.

The appointment comes after the U.S. backed out of the council in June.

Guterres sent a note to the General Assembly announcing his choice of Bachelet and urging approval by its 193 member states. Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak followed up, sending letters to all U.N. ambassadors saying a meeting will take place Friday morning to vote on her nomination, which is virtually certain to be approved.

“That would replace Jordan’s very outspoken Zeid Al-Hussein, who ends his four-year term under fire deciding not to run again. Now Zeid has been outspoken on many countries, but particularly for his sharp-tongued attacks on the Trump administration,” said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk. “Now Bachelet is not only a former Chilean president and minister and head of UN women, but more to the point, she knows firsthand about human rights abuses.”

The daughter of an air force general, she was a medical student when Marxist President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup in September 1973. Her father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet, was imprisoned for treason for opposing the coup and then-23-year-old Michelle and her mother were tortured in a secret prison for two weeks before they fled into exile. Following months of torture, her father died of cardiac arrest in March 1974.

Bachelet has also been a pioneer for women and women's rights as a pediatrician, a moderate socialist politician, and a single mother of three.

She was the first female president of Chile, in 2006-2010, and was tapped by then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be the first head of UN Women, an agency that was created in July 2010 by the General Assembly to combine four U.N. bodies dealing with gender equality and the advancement of women under a single umbrella.

In 2013, Bachelet returned to Chile to run for president again and was elected and served a second term in 2014-2018.

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."

"As a victim herself, she brings a unique perspective to the role on the importance of a vigorous defense of human rights," Roth said in a statement. "People worldwide will depend on her to be a public and forceful champion, especially where offenders are powerful."

The outgoing Al-Hussein is a Jordanian diplomat and member of the country's royal family whose four-year term ends Aug. 31.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which Bachelet would head, leads U.N. efforts to protect and promote rights and speak out against violations around the world.

Zeid defended his outspoken criticism of abuses in dozens of countries from Myanmar and Hungary to the United States and Syria at a farewell news conference here last week, insisting that his office doesn't "bring shame on governments, they shame themselves."

In his Geneva-based job as U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid said, "silence does not earn you any respect — none."

He said he will 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."

Zeid has faced criticism from many quarters for being too outspoken.

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, welcomed Zeid's impending departure, saying in a statement Wednesday that Zeid "never missed a chance to invent falsehoods and lies when it comes to Israel."

During Zeid's four-year tenure, Danon said, the 47-nation Human Rights Council "became a theater of the absurd, with hypocrisy and double standards rampant among its proceedings and reports."

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council in June citing its obsession with Israel, said Bachelet should "avoid the failures of the past."

She said the council also failed to address "extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular," or "major human rights crises" in Iran, North Korea and Congo.

"It is up to Ms. Bachelet to speak out against these failures rather than accept the status quo," Haley said in a statement. "We hope that she does. The United States will."

Falk said the U.S. will likely get along well with Bachelet, but is unlikely to return to the Human Rights Council unless there are major changes.

“She knows and she has very good relations with the United States. She has dealt with the United States as minister and as president of Chile,” Falk said, “and I think the will respect the fact that she understand not only the process, but the politics of making sure human rights move forward.”

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)