UNITED NATIONS — Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's unanimous approval as the next U.N. human rights chief on Friday sparked a sharp exchange between the United States and several key opponents over rights abuses — a foretaste of some of the issues Bachelet will confront.
With a bang of his gavel, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak gave official approval by acclamation to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' selection of Bachelet. Diplomats from the U.N.'s 193 member states burst into applause.
"Deeply humbled and honored to announce my acceptance as the @UN's new High Commissioner for Human Rights. I thank Secretary General @antonioguterres and the General Assembly for entrusting me this important task," Bachelet tweeted shortly after the assembly's approval.
Guterres then touted Bachelet's qualifications: the first female president of Chile, first head of the gender equality agency known as UN Women, "a survivor of brutality" by a Chilean dictator, and a physician who understands people's thirst for health and economic and social rights.
She has also "lived under the darkness of dictatorship," he said.
Bachelet's father was imprisoned for treason for opposing the coup that ousted Marxist President Salvador Allende in September 1973. She and her mother were tortured in a secret prison for two weeks before they fled into exile. Her father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet, died of cardiac arrest following months of torture.
Guterres told reporters Bachelet will take office "at a time of grave consequence for human rights."
"Hatred and inequality are on the rise," he said. "Respect for international humanitarian and human rights law is on the decline. Space for civil society is shrinking. Press freedoms are under pressure."
But some of the pressures that Bachelet will face were immediately evident in several speeches following her approval by the General Assembly.
U.S. Minister-Counselor Stefaine Amadeo, speaking on behalf of the U.N.'s host country, said "it is incumbent" on Bachelet to avoid what the United States called the failure of the U.N. human rights system.
She singled out the Geneva-based Human Rights Council's "consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular." She also cited U.N. failures "to adequately address major human rights crises" in Iran, North Korea and Congo.
Mohammad Hassani Nejad, a counselor in Iran's U.N. Mission, retorted that the biggest challenge for Bachelet "is to make it clear that human rights is not a means in the foreign policy toolbox of policies against who they dislike."
He said the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights should speak out "for all victims," citing "migrant kids in cages, or the U.S.-made bombs that kill kids on a daily basis."
Cuba's deputy U.N. ambassador Ana Silvia Rodriguez, echoed Nejad in speaking out against the polarization and politicization of human rights.
She accused the U.S. of "flagrantly" violating human rights by imposing an economic and financial embargo on Cuba for decades, separating migrant parents and children and causing civilian deaths "by bombs and drone wars," as well as by "brutality and police abuse, particularly against the African-American population."
Venezuela's U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada said his country will only believe the United States supports human rights when it stops separating Latin American children and parents, stops using drones and "claiming the use of torture as legitimate practice," ends discrimination against the people of Puerto Rico, and "stops insulting entire nations"
Moncada called U.S. threats to use military force against Venezuela "the expression of the most racist and cruel government in the recent history of this country."
"They have no moral right to talk about this topic (human rights) because this hatred has led them to be a threat to international peace and security," he stressed.
Amadeo, the American diplomat, then took the floor saying the United States "notes with disappointment the incorrect misconstructions, fabrications and false criticism of the delegations of Cuba and Venezuela."
Bachelet will replace Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat and member of the country's royal family whose four-year term ends Aug. 31.
Secretary-General Gutteres paid tribute to Zeid Friday "for his leadership, passion, courage and skill" as high commissioner.
Zeid, who has faced criticism from many quarters for being too outspoken, told a farewell news conference last week that his office doesn't "bring shame on governments, they shame themselves."
He stressed that "silence does not earn you any respect — none."
Zeid said he will give his successor the same advice that his predecessor, Navi Pillay, gave him: "Be fair and don't discriminate against any country" and "just come out swinging."