UN approves Chilean ex-president as new human rights chief

Israel mum on appointment of Michelle Bachelet as UNHCR head, despite her past criticism of country, perceived sympathy for Palestinians

In this file photo taken on September 20, 2017, Chile's then-president Michelle Bachelet addresses the 72nd UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New. (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)
In this file photo taken on September 20, 2017, Chile's then-president Michelle Bachelet addresses the 72nd UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New. (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

The United Nations General Assembly on Friday approved the appointment of Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet to be the world body’s next human rights chief.

Bachelet, 66, will take over from Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, a sharp critic of Israel, who held the post of UN high commissioner for human rights since September 2014.

The decision was taken by consensus by the 193-nation assembly after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put forward Bachelet to be the next human rights commissioner on Wednesday.

Applause rang out after assembly president Miroslav Lajcak gaveled the decision. Bachelet will take up her new position on September 1.

A two-time president who ranks among the world’s most high-profile women in politics, Bachelet endured torture during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet but went on to serve in government after democracy was restored in 1990.

A trained pediatrician and socialist politician, she was also the first director of UN Women, the UN agency promoting gender equality worldwide.

In this file photo taken on September 21, 2017, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) meets with Chile’s then-president Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in New York. (AFP Photo/Angela Weiss)

Bachelet will step into a position that has drawn much controversy under Zeid, who decided not to seek a second term after losing support from powerful countries including the United States, Russia and China.

In a statement, Zeid praised Bachelet, saying “she has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful high commissioner.”

Bachelet will be the seventh high commissioner since the office was created in 1993.

Born in Santiago, Bachelet was studying medicine when she was detained for several weeks by Pinochet’s political police. After her release in 1975, she went into exile with her mother to Australia before moving to East Germany.

Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979, but was prevented from working as a doctor for political reasons. She continued studying, specializing in pediatrics and public health.

After democracy was restored to Chile in 1990, she worked for the health ministry and in 2000 was appointed health minister, followed by defense minister four years later.

As president, Bachelet offered a dramatic break from Chile’s highly conservative political class. She reformed the pension system and improved health and social services, focusing on Chile’s working poor.

Israel has so far remained mum on Bachelet’s appointment, despite her past statements critical of Israel.

In this photo from February 7, 2018, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein speaks at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

Responding to news of Bachelet’s nomination, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon merely took a parting shot at the outgoing human rights chief Zeid, but did not comment on his appointed successor.

Zeid last week defended himself against various accusations leveled at him, including the charge that he was anti-Semitic.

“I think we’ve been fair with everyone and firm with everyone,” he said at a farewell press conference in New York. “The suggestion that I’m an anti-Semite and my office is, I find it really disgusting.”

Like Jerusalem, Ramallah did not publicly comment on Bachelet’s nomination.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Palestinian source told The Times of Israel on Thursday that like most members of Chile’s Socialist Party, Bachelet has long harbored sympathies for the Palestinian cause.

“Bachelet is someone who knows what’s going on here. Her foreign principles are very clear,” the source said. “She’s not going to come out saying Israel is committing a genocide. But she would not have a problem saying that Israel is systematically violating international humanitarian law.”

Chile is home to some 300,000 people of Palestinian descent and traditionally sides with Ramallah against Israel in international forums.

Bachelet also has close ties with some senior member of the Latin American country’s Jewish community.

During her many years holding various senior positions in the Chilean government, Bachelet has largerly refrained from commenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though she was highly critical of Israel during the 2014 Gaza war against the Hamas terror group.

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