With UN’s Human Rights Chief Stepping Down Unexpectedly, Who Will Take the Seat?

An Iranian dissident is seen as an ideal candidate, but with Secretary-General Guterres apparently in no position to appoint her, expect the nod to go to an old Turtle Bay hand.

Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP
The UN commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, at Geneva June 13, 2022. Valentin Flauraud/Keystone via AP

The race is on to fill an unexpected vacancy that opened at Geneva this week. The United Nations human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, soon after returning from an ill-fated trip to Beijing, said she would not vie for a second term. Her seat becomes available in August. 

Could someone like Masih Alinejad, the Iranian dissident, take over the ailing human rights apparatus?

As of yet, the scramble to replace Ms. Bachelet atop the UN human rights apparatus is mostly being done behind the scenes. Would-be candidates are lobbying Secretary-General Guterres, who is charged with appointing the next rights commissioner. 

By UN custom such positions rotate between regions. After Louise Arbour of Canada, Navi Pillay of South Africa, Prince Zaid of Jordan, and the Chilean Ms. Bachelet, some say it is time for a rights commissioner to come from the fractured Eastern European bloc. 

Yet, before Mr. Guterres was elected as UN chief in 2017, many diplomats similarly assumed it was East Europe’s turn, as one of its representatives had never held the leadership position. Most advocates said the time was also ripe for a woman, preferably “of color,” to lead the global institution. 

The pick turned out to be an aging, white Portuguese male. Mr. Guterres’s main knack for the job seemed to be his mastery of several languages, especially considering his predecessor, the Korean Ban Ki-moon, seemed to be less than fluent in any tongue. So the position isn’t necessarily tied to a regional requirement — or even necessarily about a special talent for the job.  

An ideal human rights commissioner, according to the director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, is “someone with clarity.” His choice would be the Iranian-born Ms. Alinejad, “a dissident, someone who could confront dictatorships, someone who is in the front lines for women’s rights and for freedom of speech,” Mr. Neuer told the Sun. 

Regrettably, Ms. Neuer adds, the UN system is “too political” to pick, in Ms. Alinejad, a woman who has started a rights movement in Iran as her followers there bravely use cameras to document their opposition to the Islamist regime’s law forcing women to wear a head cover in public. 

Mr. Guterres — who had presided over the Socialist International prior to entering the UN system — is in no position to appoint such a person. Instead, he will likely opt for a washed-up leftist politician who is well versed in Turtle Bay pieties.

That was the mold that lifted Ms. Bachelet to her position — and Mr. Guterres remains loyal to his chosen Chilean even as a chorus of critics have soured on her tenure. 

“From her earliest days in Chile, with enormous personal sacrifice, she has been on the front lines of the human rights struggle all her life,” Mr. Guterres said of Ms. Bachelet shortly after her Monday announcement that she planned to go home rather than seek a second term.

Ms. Bachelt “lives and breathes human rights,” Mr. Guterres gushed. She “has made a profound difference for people around the globe.”

For residents of Xinjiang, China, however, Ms. Bachelet made no discernible — let alone profound — difference. Communist Beijing has incarcerated much of the Uighur population there, made people disappear, forced them into labor camps, ordered their beards cut, and attempted to re-educate them.

Yet, after touring Xinjiang late last month, Ms. Bachelet said her guided tour was not about assessing such human rights violations. Instead, she praised oppressive Beijing for its efforts in “poverty alleviation,” for “introducing universal health care” and unemployment insurance, and for “advancing gender parity and appropriate geographical distribution.”

The promotion of tyrannical regimes after making superficial tours of their gulags was far from new for Ms. Bachelet, who had completely ignored Cuban dissidents while touring the isle in 2018. Instead, she heaped praise on Raul Castro and his regime. 

She similarly cozied up to Hugo Chavez and his heir, President Maduro, despite clear evidence of gross violations of human rights in Venezuela. Nicaragua’s Ortega is another of her Latin companeros.  

Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch often cheer for Geneva’s tendency to single out “apartheid Israel” for condemnation while ignoring truly genocidal regimes. Yet, even for them Ms. Bachelet’s disastrous China trip was too much. 

“While Bachelet has sharply criticized abuses in Russia, the United States, and other powerful countries, she repeatedly let China off the hook,” the Human Rights Watch’s UN Director, Louis Charbonneau, wrote. Mr. Guterres, he added, needs to replace her with an advocate who would publicly condemn abuses. Such a pick “needs to take precedence over friendly dialogue with governments,” he wrote. 

The 70-year old Ms. Bachelet denied on Monday that her decision was tied to criticism of her China trip, saying she had informed the secretary-general three months ahead of the journey, and that she wanted to go home to her family and friends. Perhaps so. 

Either way, now that it’s up to Mr. Guterres, anyone hoping that the UN would alleviate their suffering under oppression would be far from reassured. 

The New York Sun

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