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New Tensions Sparking Between Trump and UN Rights Leader, Michelle Bachelet


Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, in Geneva, December 2018. She has released a long-awaited database of companies that are helping Israel to develop Jewish settlements in Palestine-occupied territory. US Secretary of State Pompeo reiterated his “outrage” last week over the report. VIOLAINE MARTIN/UN PHOTO

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who has been personally attacked by United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, is not planning to resign from her position, according to her office.

Her term does not end until 2022, but rumors have been circulating that she could decide to leave amid increasing pressure from the Trump administration, which has been contemptuous of UN human-rights work generally.

President Trump quit the Human Rights Council in 2018, and Pompeo has created a new United States commission based on what he calls “unalienable” rights geared to an ideological right-wing philosophy.

“She is definitely not resigning,” Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for Bachelet said in an email on March 9 to PassBlue.

Bachelet, a former president of Chile and the founding executive director of UN Women, has been critical of Israeli policies and actions in the Palestinian areas under its occupation. Most recently, she released a controversial database of companies that are helping Israel to develop Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where properties are being seized, thus shrinking and constricting the establishment of an independent Palestine.

The settlements — and the US decision in late 2017 to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem — are recognized internationally as violations of numerous UN Security Council resolutions and other agreements that call for maintaining a longstanding status quo until an Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the future of the region can produce a solution viable to both sides.

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Some companies in the database, as published in mid-February, are American or have US components in international partnerships. The information was compiled at the request of the Human Rights Council in 2016, but its release was delayed for several years.

Closely allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Trump administration has supported tougher Israeli policies against Palestinians and the state of Palestine. Israeli fears of a damaging economic boycott, first imposed by the Arab League in 1945 — before Israel declared its independence — are thought to be a factor of concern for the country. The Oslo peace accords in the 1990s reduced the economic threat somewhat, but the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that emerged from the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, has grown. It has even found a few voices in the US Congress.

The report released by Bachelet stems from one in 2013 on the settlements, produced by an independent fact-finding mission set up by the UN Human Rights Council, Colville explained. The mission highlighted 10 types of business activities that it viewed as being particularly concerning, “given the well-established illegal nature of the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and their impact on the daily lives and human rights of the Palestinian people on whose land the settlements have been built, and continue to be built,” he said.

More than 600,000 settlers now live in at least 250 settlements in the Palestine occupied territory, and the rate of construction has accelerated over the last year, Colville added.

“In 2016, the 47 states on the Human Rights Council passed a resolution requesting us — the UN Human Rights office — to produce a database of companies involved in those 10 activities which, after a lengthy and highly complex process, we have now done,” he said.

As to what happens next, that is also to be decided by the Human Rights Council, Colville said, noting that the report recommends that if countries want to follow up, “they should consider setting up an independent expert body to take the work forward.”

International rage over the unveiling last month of Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, which it calls the “deal of the century,” may have spurred Europeans and others to back the release of the UN database. The Trump plan was drawn up and promulgated without consulting or informing the Palestinian leadership.

Pompeo has been vitriolic and even threatening in condemning Bachelet’s release of the database. “As I made clear on Feb. 13, we will stand up for our companies, and we will stand by our ally Israel,” Pompeo said on March 5. “The United States will continue to engage UN officials and member states on this matter and take necessary steps to counter efforts related to the list that the US would be monitoring the actions of governments.”

On March 6, Pompeo met with the Secretary-General António Guterres, at the UN in New York, to take up the Trump administration’s continuing counterattacks on the BDS movement and on the new list. Pompeo also spoke to Guterres about Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya, according to the US. Guterres’s office said separately that the denial of visas by the US to certain delegates was also discussed.

As Pompeo met with Guterres, the UN Security Council was meeting behind closed doors on the proposed Turkish-Russian cease-fire in Idlib, Syria. Pompeo steered clear of the Council meeting.

“Secretary Pompeo also reiterated his outrage at the decision by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to publish a database of companies operating in Israeli-controlled territories,” his statement on his meeting with Guterres read. “The Secretary made clear that the United States will continue to engage UN officials and member states on this matter, will not tolerate the reckless mistreatment of U.S. companies, and will respond to actions harmful to our business community.”

Colville, the spokesperson for Bachelet, noted in his March 9 email, “We are fully aware of the sensitivity of this report — for people on all sides of the debate, and for the companies themselves — and for this reason have taken particular care not to go beyond the remit set down for us by the Human Rights Council. We were requested to make factual determinations about which business enterprises have been involved in the 10 listed activities. So, using the normal standard of ‘reasonable grounds to believe,’ that is what we have done in this report.

“This was a State-led initiative — 32 States voted in favour of the Human Rights Council resolution requesting the creation of the database, and 15 abstained. But it is important to note that not a single State voted against it.”

Bachelet was widely thought to be a perfect choice for UN human-rights commissioner when she was appointed in 2018 by the General Assembly, despite maneuvering by Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN then, to keep Bachelet from the post.

Bachelet had been imprisoned and tortured with her mother under the military rule of President Augusto Pinochet in Chile; her father died of a heart attack in the regime’s custody. After democracy returned to Chile, Bachelet was elected president twice, for the 2006–2010 and 2014–2018 terms. The Chilean constitution limits an officeholder to one term at a time with no consecutive re-election. From 2010 to 2013, between her presidencies, she was executive director of the newly created agency UN Women.

In August 2018, she succeeded Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan in the high commissioner’s office, based in Geneva. He was also pressured by the US — Trump had withdrawn the US from the Human Rights Council in June of that year — and he refused to stand for a second term. He said he would not “bend the knee” to the powers that dominated the UN.

There is history to constraints by the US on the commissioner: Mary Robinson of Ireland, who held the job from 1997 to 2002, had been denied a second term because of vehement opposition by the administration of George W. Bush.

Human-rights experts say that Bachelet would have to resign and could not be dismissed by Guterres, who nominated her, because she was officially confirmed by the General Assembly. In her stints at the UN, she has often talked about missing Chile and her family, as she said in an interview with PassBlue, so her return to life there might be appealing. People familiar with Bachelet say that she may be considering a run for president again in Chile.

For Pompeo — Trump’s voice internationally — last week was a high-decibel time for assaulting the value of the UN and international organizations, even as the US apparently wants to enshrine the recently signed peace deal with the Taliban through a UN Security Council resolution. (Jean Arnault, currently a UN envoy for Bolivia, may be assigned a similar role for the Taliban peace deal, one source said.)

On March 5, Pompeo reacted to a decision from the International Criminal Court to authorize an investigation into activities of the Taliban as well as the US military and its allies in Afghanistan. With his signature bombast, Pompeo said to reporters at a State Department briefing:

“This is a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution masquerading as a legal body. It is all the more reckless for this ruling to come just days after the United States signed a historic peace deal on Afghanistan, which is the best chance for peace in a generation. Indeed, the Afghan Government itself pleaded with the ICC not to take this course. But the ICC politicians had other goals. I will reiterate one more time: The United States is not a party to the ICC, and we will take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, unlawful, so-called court.

“This is yet another reminder of what happens when multilateral bodies lack oversight and responsible leadership and become instead a vehicle for political vendettas,” he added. “The ICC today stumbled into a sorry affirmation of every denunciation made by its harshest critics over the last three decades.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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New Tensions Sparking Between Trump and UN Rights Leader, Michelle Bachelet
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Jennifer Wade
Jennifer Wade
4 years ago

Human Rights Council at the UN. Sounds good – even reliable. Was this the body to which Saudi Arabia was appointed?
J. Wade

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