In the hotseat - GulfToday

In the hotseat

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.

Once again a UN Human Rights Commissioner has gone against the Western powers by castigating Israel for inflicting disproportionate deaths and destruction on Palestinians in Gaza in response to rockets fired into Israel from the strip and action has been initiated by the UN Human Rights Council. Incumbent Michelle Bachelet is unique among the seven appointees to the post. She is the first to suffer loss, torture and exile by a brutal regime.

Perhaps this is why Bachelet has braved the slings and arrows of Israeli and allied outrage by taking a courageous stand in line with her three women predecessors, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, Canada’s Louise Arbour and South Africa’s Navi Pillay.

Bachelet laid the blame for last month’s deadly bomb and rocket exchanges squarely on Israel which triggered the violence by issuing “threats of forced evictions of Palestinian families” from the Shaikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and precipitating violence by ordering a heavy deployment of security forces around al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. This led to fire from Gaza and massive Israeli retaliation which, in turn, produced “vicious attacks and mounting casualties in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in Israel.”  While she cited Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza for lobbing rockets indiscriminately into populated areas in Israel, she pointed out that Israel “targeted civilian objects that, under international humanitarian law, do not meet the requirements to be considered as military objectives” and could amount to “war crimes.”  She said she had seen no evidence the buildings in Gaza struck by Israel were being used for military purposes.

US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders who, during the 11-day exchange of fire, upheld Israel’s right to self-defence did not welcome her forthright assessment of Israel’s massively disproportionate assault which killed 253 Gazans and slew 12 in Israel, including two Thais and one Indian. As Donald Trump withdrew from the Council in 2018, the Biden administration, which claims to uphold human rights everywhere, was not in a position to block measures against Israel at this time. As soon as it took office, the administration declared its intention to re-engage with the Council and seek election when the General Assembly meets in the fall.

Clearly emboldened by Bachelet’s approach, the Council established, for the first time, an open-ended international investigation into violations during the May violence and into long-standing abuses against Palestinians in the occupied territories and, again, unprecedentedly, Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The text of the resolution adopted by the Council said investigators should probe “underlying root causes of recurrent tensions and instability, including systematic discrimination and repression based on group identity.”  Evidence for prosecutions should be collected and perpetrators identified so they can be held accountable. Addressing the West, the resolution called on countries to “refrain from transferring arms when they assess...that there is a clear risk that such arms might be used in the commission or facilitation of serious violations or abuses.”

Like Mary Robinson, who was Ireland’s first female president, Bachelet was the first woman to serve as her country’s president — and the first president since 1932 to serve two terms.

A physician and expert on military strategy, Bachelet is a socialist. Her air force brigadier father was put in charge of food distribution by the administration of leftist President Salavador Allende and was arrested and tortured to death after US-backed General Augusto Pinochet mounted his coup in 1973. He ousted Allende (who committed suicide rather than be captured), and imprisoned and killed thousands.

Michelle Bachelet and her mother were detained and subjected to torture and intimidation. Bachelet was permitted to emigrate to Australia and eventually moved to East Germany where she continued her medical studies and married another Chilian expatriate. After four years in exile she was permitted to return to Chile, resume medical studies, and, after qualifying, work in public health. She was not allowed to practice in hospitals or privately because of her political background.

Following the 1990 fall of the Pinochet dictatorship and the election of a civilian president, she was appointed health minister and two years later defence minister, becoming the first woman in Latin America to hold this job. In 2006 she was elected president of Chile and the first woman to be woman elected in her own right to assume the post in South America.  Her initial cabinet had equal numbers of male and female ministers. Her government initiated pension and educational reforms, established a human rights commission, and created an environment ministry. Having dealt with multiple natural disasters, politicial crises and the 2008 global recession, she ended her first term with an approval rating of 84 per cent.

As Chilean presidents are not allowed two successive terms in office, she bided her time and ran again and began a second term in March 2014. She was sworn in to office by Senate President Isabel Allende, daughter of the dead president (not to be confused with a cousin, a novelist of the same name). Although Biden, then vice-president, attended Bachelet’s inauguration, President Barack Obama repeatedly refused to apologise for the cruelty, abuses and murders committed by the Pinochet regime, a rejection unlikely to be forgotten by Bachelet.

During her second term, she secured free university education for poor students and raised taxes to provide funds for social welfare programmes, but left office with a 39 per cent approval rating in 2018 and was promptly appointed UN rights commissioner.

In this post, she has tackled not only Israel but also China over its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims and its suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and commissioned an investigation into Iran’s 2019 brutal crack-down on demonstrators. She has raised concern over the fate of civilians during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and issued a report on Sri Lanka’s failure to address accusations of grave abuses against the country’s Tamil minority following the civil conflict which ended in 2009.

As a survivor of Chile’s dictatorship and troubled political scene, Bachelet is a woman to tackle the globe’s cruelties and human rights abuses without submitting to the opposition she could expect to encounter from the most powerful governments on the planet which either tolerated or applauded the human rights abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship.

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