Trailblazer Michelle Bachelet picked to champion human rights at UN
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Trailblazer Michelle Bachelet picked to champion human rights at UN

New York: The leader of the United Nations has picked Michelle Bachelet, a prominent women's rights advocate and the first woman to serve as Chile's president, to be the organisation's next top human rights official.

Then Chile's president Michelle Bachelet holds the Oscar statuette during a meeting with Sebastian Lelio, left, and Daniela Vega, right, director and actress of the Oscar winning foreign language film "A Fantastic Woman" days before the end of her term in March.

Then Chile's president Michelle Bachelet holds the Oscar statuette during a meeting with Sebastian Lelio, left, and Daniela Vega, right, director and actress of the Oscar winning foreign language film "A Fantastic Woman" days before the end of her term in March.Credit:AP

The announcement by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ended the uncertainty over who would replace Zeid Raad al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince and long-time diplomat who became one of the most forthright critics of abuses by governments in many countries, including the United States, during his four years as the high commissioner for human rights.

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Hussein said in December that he would not be seeking an extension of his term, which expires next month. He told colleagues that "to do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication".

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Bachelet, 66, who was imprisoned and tortured during Chile's right-wing dictatorship and years later became a pediatrician and politician, will be stepping into a particularly difficult and contentious role at the 193-member organisation.

Efforts to reach Bachelet in Chile were not immediately successful.

Outgoing UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein

Outgoing UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-HusseinCredit:Keystone/AP

The change comes as the Trump administration has taken an increasingly dim view of human rights diplomacy at the UN. The administration withdrew from the Human Rights Council in June, partly over the frequent criticism of Israel and other actions that the administration described as two-faced.

After Hussein's office criticised the White House over the practice of separating children from parents to deter unauthorised immigrants, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador, angrily accused it of ignorance and hypocrisy.

Haley had a measured reaction to the choice of Bachelet.

"The failures of the Human Rights Council make the Secretary-General's selection of a new High Commissioner for Human Rights all the more important," she said in a statement. "It is incumbent on the Secretary-General's choice, Ms Bachelet, to avoid the failures of the past."

Human rights advocates welcomed the choice.

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

Bachelet became involved in Chilean human rights activism practically at the onset of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in September 1973. She was studying medicine at the University of Chile and active in the Socialist Party when a military coup toppled the government of Salvador Allende.

Her father, a general in the air force, was arrested and tortured by subordinates and died in prison of heart failure in March 1974. Bachelet and her mother, Angela Jeria, were detained by Chile's secret security agency in January 1975 and tortured for weeks.

After their release, Bachelet and her mother spent years in exile. She returned to Chile in 1979, finished school and became a pediatrician and public health advocate, specialising in children traumatised by political violence. She later held positions in the government, including health minister and defence minister, and was president from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 until this year.

Between her presidential terms, Bachelet was an undersecretary-general of the United Nations and the first executive director of UN Women, an organisation that promotes gender equality.

In conversations with journalists in recent days, Hussein spoke of the pressures he felt as an outspoken critic of repressive world leaders. He said Guterres had from time to time asked if he could have chosen less provocative language, but did not insist that the high commissioner change his words. "I saw it as advice from a friend," Hussein said.

He also maintained that as the world body's top human rights advocate, he did not want to err on the side of silence and regret it later.

"Silence does not earn you respect," he said last week. "If I'm going to make a mistake I'd rather make a mistake speaking out."

In an interview on Friday with the New York Times editorial board, Hussein said it should be part of the position's responsibilities to be outspoken regardless of who is offended. "I don't see how you can do the job otherwise," he said.

New York Times