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Bachelet to step down at end of first term

Just weeks after a trip to China that drew widespread criticism, Michelle Bachelet said she will not seek a second four-term as U.N. human rights chief.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva (AN/U.N. Web TV)

GENEVA (AN) — Just weeks after returning from a heavily stage-managed trip to China that drew widespread criticism, Michelle Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council's opening session that she will not seek a second four-term as the U.N. human rights chief.

Bachelet, a former president of Chile and human rights activist, summed up the global human rights situation on Monday before concluding that "as my term as High Commissioner draws to a close, this council’s milestone 50th session will be the last which I brief." The 47-nation council meets for regular sessions every March, June and September that last from three to four weeks.

Initially she did not elaborate on her reasons for departing at the end of August, after a single term starting in September 2018, but urged the council "to continue to seek dialogue, to be willing to hear the other, to understand respective points of view and to actively work towards identifying common ground, as prerequisites to achieving durable solutions to the challenges that threaten us all."

After her speech, however, she told reporters outside the council that her decision to leave "has no relationship" to criticism over her China trip, and she will keep working as hard as ever to discharge all her responsibilities before she leaves.

Two months ago, she said, she had already indicated at a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York that she did not want to continue in the job beyond her first term. "So, this is not something new," she said. "After a long and rich career, I want to go back to my country, to my family." And as a former head of state, she added, she has become inured to criticism.

Last month, Bachelet spent six days in China on what was the first trip that any head of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has taken in the past 17 years. She had meetings with top Chinese officials, including a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping, and also met virtually with groups working on human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and other parts of China.

But she acknowledged in a news conference at the end of the trip that she was "unable to assess the full scale" of the so-called education and training centers where millions of Muslim Uyghurs are forcibly held and put to work in remote Xinjiang Province.

While Bachelet was in China, the U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in cooperation with a consortium of European, Japanese and U.S. media outlets, published a trove of documents, speeches, spreadsheets and images of detainees in Xinjiang dubbed the “Xinjiang Police Files,” which was hacked from police computer servers in the region.

The files showed what Bachelet was obstructed from observing: the massive scale of surveillance and reeducation practices imposed by Beijing as part of a yearslong crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs in the region.

Afterwards, several high-ranking officials and international organizations criticized her trip — which Bachelet's office said was difficult to set up properly.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns that Beijing’s efforts to “restrict and manipulate” Bachelet’s visit prevented her from speaking directly with residents of Xinjiang or with families of Uyghurs subjected to “cruel treatment that shocks the conscience.”

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, a former U.N. special rapporteur, said Bachelet’s photo opps with Chinese officials during her tightly controlled visit along with the mischaracterizations of her statements by Chinese state media had left the impression that she "walked straight into a highly predictable propaganda exercise."

Sticking to the 'blueprint'

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Bachelet’s decision not to seek a second term "should not stand in the way of her duty to complete the tasks of her first term, including prompt publication of her long-delayed report on the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang."

Bachelet said last year the report wasn't finished. "I regret that I am not able to report progress on my efforts to seek meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region," she told the council in September. "In the meantime, my office is finalizing its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public."

On Monday, she told reporters she will release the report before her term ends.

Her credentials to serve as U.N. human rights chief have never been in dispute. She grew up as the daughter of an air force general in Chile who opposed U.S.-backed August Pinochet’s overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Her father died after months of torture while in prison, and Bachelet and her mother also were detained and tortured for weeks during Pinochet’s dictatorship. They fled into exile.

In 1979, Bachelet returned to Chile, where she became a pediatrician and public health advocate, then began her long, prominent political career.

In her final summation of the global human rights situation, Bachelet said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has destroyed many lives, causing havoc and destruction and inflicting horrors on civilians that will leave a mark for generations to come.

"Its social, economic and political ramifications ripple across the region and globally, with no end in sight," she said. "A global food, fuel and finance crisis now risks plunging millions into food insecurity and poverty; 1.2 billion people live in countries that are severely exposed and vulnerable to all three dimensions of finance, food, and energy, simultaneously."

Bachelet lamented the "skyrocketing" inequalities between and within countries that threaten recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and undermine progress towards the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

"In the face of these multiple and intersecting challenges and rising global tensions, many people I meet are questioning not only their own futures, but the future of their societies, and of our globe. I understand and share their concerns. It is tempting to slip back into emergency mode and focus on putting out the first fires we see," said Bachelet.

"Yes, stronger, immediate action is needed to address the worst impacts and to limit human suffering. But this is not sufficient. We need to invest in addressing the conditions that provoke these crises," she said. "The 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement [on climate change] must remain our blueprint for this ambition. Within the eight years that remain we must take bold and urgent action to generate the transformative change that is needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals."