General Assembly OKs ex-president of Chile as UN human rights chief

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United Nations : In a unanimous vote full of symbolism, the UN General Assembly on Friday approved the appointment of a victim of human rights abuses, Michelle Bachelet, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


The former President of Chile will succeed Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, whose stormy four-year term ends this month.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who had nominated her, told reporters after Assembly's approval by acclamation: "At home she has known the heights and depths as the first woman to serve as the President and also as a survivor of brutality by authorities targeting her and her family."

She enters the office in the 70th year of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights having lived under the "darkness of dictatorship" and now facing several challenges, he said.

Bachelet, who finished a second term as president on Chile in March, had been detained by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973 and tortured while her father died in custody after torture by the military junta.

A medical doctor, she also has done advanced studies in defence in the United States and served as health and defence minister -- unique qualifications for a human rights chief who must confront military organisations involved in human rights violations that inflict physical and mental harm.

Guterres said that as a physician she has seen first hand the "thirsting for health and yearning to enjoy vital economic and social rights."

Guterres and delegates who spoke at the Assembly session noted that between her two presidential terms, Bachelet served as the founding executive director of UN Women, the office for promoting gender equality and women's empowerment.

The delegate of the Solomon Islands, who spoke on behalf of the Asian and Pacific nations, said that she has a record of championing the rights of women and added that she would be a strong leader for promoting world peace and human rights world-wide.

While Guterres and other speakers talked of the challenges before the human rights agenda because of conflicts, threats to press freedom, erosion of the role of civil society organisations, and rise in hatred and animosity between various groups, Bachelet faces the more immediate task of reestablishing the credibility of her office and of the UN Human Rights Council, which has come under attack during Zeid's stormy tenure.

India had accused Zeid of being biased after he had issued a report on human rights violations in Kashmir and called for a Council investigation.

India slammed the report with Deputy Permanent Representative Tanmaya Lal asserting it reflected "the clear bias of an official who was acting without any mandate whatsoever and relied on unverified sources of information."

The US pulled out of the Human Rights Council in June, while Permanent Representative Nikki Haley called it a "hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights."

The challenges were on display at the Assembly session soon after she won its approval.

The US delegate said the credibility of the human rights office and the council were at stake asserting that it had failed to act on abuses in Cuba and Venezuela.

The delegates of those countries flung counter charges at the US, with Iran joining the fray.

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in)