The World of International Organizations Explained

Bachelet named U.N. human rights chief

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet at the U.N. General Assembly (ARÊTE/OHCHR)

GENEVA — Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet was appointed head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, responsible for promoting a main pillar of the U.N. system in a role that will draw on her past as a victim of torture and detention in her home country.

Bachelet, who became Chile’s first female president and served two terms in that office from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018, won approval from the U.N. General Assembly to run the U.N. human rights office known as OHCHR at the start of September.

The three main pillars of the United Nations system are peace and security, development and human rights. She replaces Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who has headed OHCHR since 2014.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who chose her for the position, said he was delighted by the assembly’s support for Bachelet, who he called “a pioneer, a visionary, a woman of principle, and a great human rights leader for these troubled times.” The 193-nation assembly’s decision on August 10 was taken by consensus.

She will become the seventh high commissioner since the Geneva-based U.N. human rights office was created in 1993. Between 2010 and 2013, Bachelet also served as the first head of U.N. Women, the international organization that champions gender equality and empowerment of women.

Bachelet got involved in politics after becoming a Chilean human rights activist in the early 1970s, owing to her family becoming political prisoners and the death of her father, an air force general, after months of torture while in prison.

Her father opposed August Pinochet’s overthrow of President Salvador Allende and was imprisoned for treason. Bachelet and her mother were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

She and her mother fled into exile in Australia and later in East Germany. Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 and became a pediatrician and public health advocate. She began her career in politics with Chile’s health ministry, where she quickly rose from adviser to ministry head in 2000, then became head of the defense ministry in 2002.

“She has lived under the darkness of dictatorship,” Guterres said. “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.”

Zeid said his successor has “all the attributes — courage, perseverance, passion and a deep commitment to human rights — to make her a successful high commissioner.”

An outspoken act to follow

Zeid has not been shy about speaking up when he sees the need. His strong views made him an outspoken critic of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies. In early June, his office said the Trump administration was violating children’s rights under international law by breaking up families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The office said the U.S. policy of separating children from their parents also was being applied to asylum-seekers and other migrants in vulnerable situations. The American ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley issued a sharp rebuke in response to the criticism.

Later that month, Zeid called on the United States to halt the policy, saying it resulted in separation of nearly 2,000 migrant children from their parents after entering the United States from Mexico. He said it was “unconscionable” for any nation to do so in the name of preventing their parents from migrating.

The Trump administration, in another act of defiance against the international community, announced in June it had decided to pull the United States out of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The United States claimed the world’s top deliberative body for promoting human rights was biased against Israel.

After Bachelet’s selection, Haley said the U.S. withdrawal from the Geneva-based council did not mean there would be a U.S. withdrawal from its “commitment to advancing universal human rights” both within the U.N. system and around the world.

In July, Iceland won election to the council, filling the vacancy left by the United States. The council, with 47 member nations, often works in parallel with OHCHR. The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve Iceland as a member.

“It is incumbent on the secretary-general’s choice, Ms. Bachelet, to avoid the failures of the U.N. 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,” Haley said in remarks posted by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted Trump and Israel both “condemned” Zeid for his views, and said Bachelet was up to the job of pressuring for human rights improvements.

“Despite the Trump administration’s thinly disguised threats (already), the new chief, Michelle Bachelet, will show her principles in her willingness to keep up the pressure,” he said.

The world of international organizations explained.

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