UN’s New Human Rights Chief, a Socialist, Criticized for Stance on Cuba, Venezuela

Patrick Goodenough | August 9, 2018 | 4:22am EDT
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A photo an official Cuban Communist Party organ shows then-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet meeting with Cuban dictator Raul Castro in January 2018. (Photo: Omara García Mederos/Periodico 26)

(CNSNews.com) – Chile’s socialist former president, in line to become the U.N.’s next human rights chief, faces criticism over an apparent reluctance to criticize fellow leftists in Latin America, notably the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela.

The U.N. General Assembly is expected to endorse Michelle Bachelet as the next U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Friday, after U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres nominated her for the post, in consultation with the countries that chair the world body’s five regional groups. The U.N. advertised the vacancy in June.

Approval by the 193-member General Assembly is likely to be a swift formality, although member-states could force a vote

Bachelet was Chile’s president from 2006-2010 and again from 2014-2018. In the intervening years she served as the first executive director of the new U.N. gender equality agency known as U.N. Women.

Responding to her nomination, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in a statement cited the U.N. Human Rights Council’s “consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular” as one of the reasons for the U.S. decision to exit the HRC in June.

(Both Cuba and Venezuela have seats on the 47-member HRC. They are among 14 HRC members this year who are graded “not free” by Freedom House.)

The next high commissioner for human rights “can have a strong voice on these critical issues,” Haley said, adding that it is incumbent on Bachelet “to avoid the failures of the past.”

In Twitter posts, Haley’s two Obama-era predecessors, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both praised the nomination.

“Excellent choice!” tweeted Rice, while Power called it a “strong choice” and pointed to Bachelet’s personal experience of human rights abuse at the hands of Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

(Her father, an air force general, was jailed for treason for opposing Pinochet’s military coup against the elected communist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. Bachelet and her mother were detained and tortured before fleeing into exile.)

“Bachelet has a lifelong commitment to the cause of human rights,” Power tweeted. “Her father was tortured under Pinochet & died in custody. She and her mom were also arrested and beaten. She’s a fighter.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) executive director Kenneth Roth also endorsed the choice.

“As a victim herself, Bachelet would bring a unique perspective to the U.N. role on the importance of a vigorous defense of human rights,” he said. “People worldwide will depend on her to be a public and forceful champion, especially where offenders are powerful.”

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet delivers a speech at the U.N. in New York on April 6, 2018. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Just a year ago, however, HRW’s own Latin America chief criticized Bachelet for failing to condemn the Maduro regime in Venezuela, calling it a “serious mistake” that she did not label the rights-abusing regime a dictatorship.

Bachelet’s dealings with the communist regime in Cuba has also drawn scrutiny.

Her second-last trip abroad as her presidential term came to an end early this year was to Cuba, where she met with then-President Raul Castro. On an earlier visit, she met in 2009 with the then-retired – now deceased – Fidel Castro.

Writing about the trip in January, leading Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez questioned Bachelet’s willingness to fraternize with the regime – “her allies in Havana” – and evident reluctance to support dissidents.

“In each of her two terms Bachelet avoided showing sympathy for the cause of Cuban dissidents and has declined any contact with the countless activists from the island who have visited her country in recent years,” Sanchez wrote.

“From her mouth, there has never been any condemnation of the political repression systematically carried out by Raúl Castro, even when the victims are women.”

Sanchez argued that, “like many other leftist politicians,” Bachelet believed that criticizing the Castro regime for violating human rights “would be akin to going over to the side of the ‘right’ and betraying her ideals.”

‘A leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba’

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based human rights organization, said it had “serious concerns” about her record on supporting human rights in Latin America.

The group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer, said Bachelet “is a highly educated and intelligent politician” who has “important negotiating skills.”

“But she has a controversial record when it comes to her support for the human rights abusing governments who rule Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and we need to know how she plans to address these urgent situations before her nomination is voted upon,” he said.

U.N. Watch pointed to several incidents, including Bachelet’s visit to Cuba in January and her failure to criticize Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, plus:

--Her praising of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, on his death in 2013, as a “great friend” who had demonstrated a “profound love for his people and the challenges of our region to eradicate poverty and generate a better life for everyone.” U.N. Watch said Chavez’ legacy was “mass hunger, jailed opposition leaders and a failed state.”

--Her praising of Fidel Castro, on his death in 2016, as “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba and Latin America. U.N. Watch noted that her stance was “sharply criticized by Chilean political leaders across the spectrum, who said it showed insensitivity to victims of Cuban state repression.”

--Her public silence in recent months about the violent repression at the hands of the Ortega regime in Nicaragua.

In her role as head of U.N. Women, Bachelet at times raised eyebrows for prioritizing the case of Palestinian women above those facing severe hardships in other countries.

When she addressed the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) annual sessions in 2011, 2012 and 2013, for example, she highlighted the Palestinian issue each time but few others specific to a particular country.

Those CSW sessions in New York, like others in recent years, ended with only one country-specific resolution, focusing on Palestinian women and critical of Israel – and none on the difficulties faced by women in countries like Syria or Iran.

Bachelet will succeed Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian prince who assumed the post in 2014, and who has been outspokenly critical of Trump administration policies.

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