Blind Eye to Dictatorships: Report on the 2018-22 Tenure of UN Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet

 

 

Blind Eye to Dictatorships

A Report on Michelle Bachelet’s Record As
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

 

Introduction and Methodology

This report examines the record of Michelle Bachelet as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by examining a broad and indicative sample of her statements during four years in office.

UN Watch reviewed every country criticism published by Ms. Bachelet on her UN website during her tenure, from  September 1, 2018 through August 31, 2022, by searching the Media Center section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). We reviewed statements published there by the High Commissioner, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, as well as their spokespeople.

Our findings refer only to official statements that were initiated by Michelle Bachelet at her own discretion. They do not count criticisms found in statements mandated by the Human Rights Council, global omnibus updates to the Council, statements made during or after official country visits, statements at UN events, thematic statements, statements made on annual commemorative days, or her farewell speech.

 

Key Findings

The following set of tables and graphs measures the quantity and strength of the High Commissioner’s statements on 24 non-democracies, being countries failing to meet the minimal standards of a “Free” democracy as rated by Freedom House, as well as 24 democracies rated “Free” by Freedom House. For each country listed, the tables and graphs show the number of criticisms initiated by High Commissioner Bachelet during her four-year term, as well as our assessment of whether the statement is weak, moderate, or strong, and whether it contains any praise. For the complete data, click here.

Tables of Statements by Michelle Bachelet on Select Countries

 

 

Positive Findings

High Commissioner Bachelet was strong in calling out abuses in the following countries:

  • Myanmar: Bachelet initiated 17 statements criticizing Myanmar, including 12 that we rated as strong, the most on any country. She initiated five statements prior to the February 2021 coup addressing abuses against the Rohingya community and one statement calling for the release of two Reuters journalists. Following the coup, Bachelet initiated 11 statements, many of which were strong, criticizing crackdowns and violence against protesters as well as violations against the Rohingya.

 

  • Sudan: Bachelet initiated 15 statements on Sudan, most of which we rated as strong or moderate. Five of the statements were initiated between January and July 2019 criticizing the government’s excessive force against protesters. Following the October 2021 coup, she initiated seven statements, mostly moderate and strong. Six of the statements criticized excessive force and other violations by the security forces and the other one was on inter-communal violence in Darfur.

 

  • Nicaragua: Bachelet initiated 12 criticisms of the Nicaraguan regime for its crackdowns on dissent and civil liberties. Most of these we rated as moderate or strong. We note, however, that nine of these were in 2018 and 2019. Since then, however, Bachelet has initiated only one criticism per year on Nicaragua. We note that UN Watch and its director made 22 appeals for Bachelet to speak out on Nicaragua. On 10 occasions, UN Watch urged her to support a UNHRC special session on Nicaragua, but to no avail. We call on the next High Commissioner to be vocal and to speak out for the 170 political prisoners, including former presidential candidates such as Juan Chamorro, Félix Maradiaga, and former ambassador Arturo Cruz.

 

  • Belarus: Since July 2020, a month before fraught presidential elections in Belarus, Bachelet initiated nine statements critical of the Lukashenko government in connection with the election violence. The majority of these statements were either moderate or strong. Her statements focused on violence before and after the last election, crackdowns on protesters, and arbitrary arrests. At the same time, Bachelet failed to issue a single statement on Belarus until just before these elections. UN Watch also made nine appeals since August 2020 urging Bachelet to support a special session on Belarus. She failed, however, to do so. UN Watch especially appealed to Bachelet to bring attention to various Belarussian human rights defenders who were imprisoned, such as Viktor Babariko, Katerina Borisevich, Marina Zolotova, Vitaly Shishov, Andrey Alyaksandrau, Sergei Tikhanovsky, and Andrei Kazimirov. However, only one of the names mentioned by UN Watch, Roman Protasevich, was cited in her statements.

 

  • Ukraine: Bachelet was swift in condemning Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Since February 2022, she initiated nine criticisms of Putin’s government, eight on the war itself, and one on Russia’s arrests of anti-war protesters inside Russia. Five of these were strong.

 

Problematic Findings

  • Russia: only 4 statements, none on Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners. Bachelet initiated only four stand-alone statements on the Putin regime’s human rights violations in Russia. These addressed arbitrary arrests of government critics and anti-war demonstrators, attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses, and harassment of civil society. Her other eight criticisms of Russia addressed the war in Ukraine. However, Bachelet issued zero statements on Russian political prisoners,[1] saying nothing, for example, on the ongoing arbitrary detention of dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza. Bachelet remained silent despite repeated appeals made to her by human rights groups worldwide.[2] She was likewise silent about Russia’s arrest and attempted poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny until he was sentenced in February 2021, despite her being urged to speak out by UN Watch in 15 appeals published on Twitter.

 

  • Ukraine: 0 statements on Russia’s aggression until the February 2022 invasion. High Commissioner Bachelet failed to address Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of the sovereign Ukrainian territory of Crimea, including the transfer of 200,000 Russian nationals to the occupied region, persecution of local Crimean Tatars, and attacks on journalists such as Radio Free Europe’s Vladyslav Yespenko, arrested in March 2021. She also ignored Russia’s violations in the sovereign Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, including arbitrary arrests, politically motivated kidnappings, and torture of detainees. By contrast, governments worldwide such as the U.S., EU, UK, and Canada, as well as human rights organizations such as Civic Solidarity, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch were vocal about criticizing Russianabuses in Crimea.

 

  • China: 5 on Hong Kong, 1 on COVID-related detention, 0 on everything else in China. Bachelet’s statements on China over four years turned a blind eye to Beijing’s violations against women, children, and migrants, including forced labor which she mentioned once only in passing. She also ignored arbitrary detentions, reprisals against human rights defenders and their families, and widespread violations in Tibet. Bachelet was silent despite credible reports of Beijing’s gross abuses. For example, in July 2018, just before Michelle Bachelet took office, Freedom House described China as the “Global Leader in Political Prisoners.” Likewise, in June 2021, 11 independent UN human rights experts issued a joint statement reporting abuses against political detainees.[3] Bachelet did not initiate a single statement on the topic. Finally, China is also known to abuse its power at the UN and engage in reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with UN mechanisms, as detailed in the Secretary General’s annual reports on reprisals. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Council on Foreign Relations, have reported on China’s attacks on human rights at the UN. On 60 separate occasions, UN Watch and its director called on Bachelet to speak out against China’s abuse of the UN system. Nevertheless, Bachelet was silent.

 

  • Uighurs: 0 statements over four years, except in the last hour of her mandate. On at least 15 separate occasions, UN Watch urged Michelle Bachelet to speak out against China’s persecution of the Uighurs. Yet for nearly the entirety of her term, Bachelet failed to initiate a single stand-alone statement concerning China’s forced detention of more than one million Uighurs. Her silence came despite the issue being repeatedly raised by member states at the UN, including in two joint statements at the Human Rights Council, one on behalf of 22 countries, and another on behalf of 39 countries.[4] Bachelet’s only statements on the issue were passing, weak references contained in omnibus oral updates to the Council. It was only in the very last hour of her mandate, on August 31, 2022, that Bachelet finally released a long-delayed report on the Uighurs.

 

  • Iran: 0 on oppression of dissidents, forced Hijab law, fomenting terrorism. Bachelet initiated 12 statements on Iran, mostly on executions and excessive force against protesters. Yet she ignored the regime’s grave and widespread discrimination against women, including through its forced Hijab law. While Iran’s attempted kidnapping of exiled Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad was widely condemned—by S. government officials, a coalition of human rights groups, and the Committee to Protect Journalists—Bachelet was, by contrast, silent. Likewise, when renowned novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed on August 12 in wake of incitement to kill him by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, world leaders were quick to condemn the attack, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressly calling out Iran’s complicity. Bachelet by contrast was silent. Finally, she never spoke out against the Iranian regime’s malign role in fomenting terrorism and conflict throughout the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Israel, as well as Iran’s repeated incitement to genocide by calling for Israel’s destruction. Both the U.S. and Canada have condemned Iranian sponsorship of terrorism throughout the Middle East. UN Watch and its director made 57 separate appeals for Bachelet to speak out on Iran. Although she did speak out against executions, she ignored the various dissidents still suffering in unjust detention, whom UN Watch brought to her attention.

 

  • Saudi Arabia: 0 on subjugation of women, political prisoners, repression of religious freedom. Bachelet did not initiate a single statement speaking out for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She was silent on the regime’s imprisonment and torturing of Saudi women’s rights activists and said nothing about its oppressive and misogynistic male guardianship law. It was not until the second to last week of her term on August 19, 2022, that she initiated a statement on behalf of an imprisoned dissident—to criticize the draconian 34-year sentence handed down to doctoral student Salma Al-Shehab on account of her tweets on political and human rights issues. Bachelet failed to initiate statements for any other dissidents and political prisoners such as Raif Badawi, despite urging by UN Watch. At the same time, Bachelet did initiate two stand-alone statements on Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its embassy in Turkey, five on Saudi actions in Yemen, and two on mass executions.

 

  • Israel: condemned by Bachelet more times than North Korea, China, and the Taliban. Bachelet applied a double standard against Israel, a tiny democracy that she condemned 14 times, more than any other. By contrast, as shown in the chart of democracies above, she never once criticized Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Sweden, and others. What is more, her criticisms of Israel surpassed her criticisms of such tyrannies as Venezuela, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and Yemen.

 

  • United States: condemned more times than Venezuela’s Maduro regime. UN Watch and its director had made 27 separate appeals for Bachelet to speak out on human rights abuses in Venezuela and to support the convening of an emergency session. However, Bachelet initiated only seven stand-alone criticisms of Venezuela’s Maduro regime during her four years as High Commissioner. By contrast, during that same period, she initiated 10 criticisms of the United States. Likewise, while Bachelet entered the abortion debate by initiating a statement criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, she never spoke out on anti-abortion laws in countries like Egypt, El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Senegal, nor did she ever initiate a press release on forced abortions and sterilizations in China and North Korea.

 

  • Cuba: only 1 criticism of police state. Bachelet criticized Cuba only once during her entire four years. This statement came in wake of repeated UN Watch appeals calling out her silence during the historic July 2021 mass protests in Cuba, which called for democracy, freedom, and human dignity. Indeed, during Bachelet’s four years in office, UN Watch made no less than 50 appeals on Twitter for her to speak out against the Havana regime’s gross and systematic abuses, including at least ten appeals for her to support an urgent debate on Cuba by the Human Rights Council. Yet in her entire four-year term, Bachelet issued only a single statement on the Cuban dictatorship. She ignored appeals over four years to raise awareness about the plight of numerous human rights defenders who faced detention, torture, and persecution at the hands of the regime, including people such as Eduardo Cardet, Ángel Moya Acosta, Benito Fojaco, ​​Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, Camila Acosta, José Daniel Ferrer, and Javier Delgado.

 

  • North Korea: criticized as many times as Australia. Bachelet initiated only one criticism of North Korea, one of the worst human rights violators on the planet, and, despite numerous appeals made by UN Watch, also only one statement each on serial abusers such as Burundi, Eritrea, Pakistan, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. Yet this was the same number of criticisms that she initiated against Australia, Spain, and the European Union. While democracies must be held to account, a moral and merits-based approach would demand that the High Commissioner devote more of her office’s limited time and resources to those human rights victims in the world who suffer severe and systematic oppression and who have no recourse to free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and other basic institutions of democracy that act as a check and balance to executive power.

 

  • Ignored Antisemitism: In her four years as High Commissioner, Bachelet has never initiated a stand-alone statement against any violent antisemitic attacks that took place worldwide, even though she did, on a number of occasions, speak out on other forms of racism. For example, concerning America, Bachelet initiated three criticisms of the S. government for violence against the African American community. However, she never spoke out after the synagogue shootings or hostage-taking in Pittsburgh, San Diego, or Texas.

 

  • Pakistan: only 2 statements. Despite Pakistan being a member state of the UNHRC and therefore obliged to uphold the highest standard of human rights, Bachelet initiated only two statements on this country of 220 million people, where the military exerts enormous influence and intimidates media. She made no statements on Pakistan’s arbitrary arrests,
    restrictions on civil liberties, persecution of human rights defenders, attacks on journalists, and discrimination and violence against women. UN Watch and its director made appeals in December 2018 and April 2019 for Bachelet to condemn Pakistan’s persecution of religious minorities, such as the Christian Asia Bibi who was on death row for “blasphemy,” but she failed to act.

 

  • Turkey: 0 criticism of human rights abuses in Turkey. High Commissioner Bachelet initiated seven criticisms of the Turkish government, but all were on Turkey’s violations in Syria. None concerned widespread abuses within Turkey, such as restrictions on civil liberties, arbitrary arrests, and attacks on journalists, academics, and human rights defenders. Bachelet likewise failed to mention the names of dissidents persecuted by the Erdogan regime.[5]

 


[1]  UN Watch urged Bachelet to denounce Russia’s imprisonment of Volodymyr Balukh, Airat Dilmukhametov, Ivan Safronov, Vanessa Kogan, and Margarita Yudina. She failed to speak out. Likewise, UN Watch first appealed to Bachelet to speak out on Alexei Navalny on July 30, 2019, and then again on 13 separate occasions. Only on February 3, 2021 did her office finally make a statement for Navalny. Thereafter, UN Watch and its director made over 20 pleas for Bachelet to demand Navalny’s proper treatment, release, and more recently for Russia to simply disclose his whereabouts, yet she issued no press releases on his behalf.

[2] On April 12, 2022, immediately after Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer made the following appeal to Bachelet on Twitter: “We urge you to speak out on behalf of the international community to show solidarity with courageous Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza—who has testified repeatedly at the United Nations—and to demand his immediate release from arbitrary detention.” Many other similar appeals were made to Bachelet, yet to no avail. Likewise, on May 2, 2022, a coalition of 25 human rights groups that co-sponsor the annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, led by UN Watch, appealed to Bachelet to demand the release of Mr. Kara-Murza, along with all other prisoners of conscience jailed for protesting Putin’s war in Ukraine. Bachelet failed to act, issuing no statement or reply to the appeal.  On May 12, 2022, at an urgent session of the Human Rights Council, UN Watch’s director took the floor on behalf of a cross-regional coalition of 35 human rights NGOs and urged Bachelet to speak out for Mr. Kara-Murza; she remained silent. Still, UN Watch continued to campaign: “@MBachelet @UN, do not be silent. Stand with Vladimir. Stand with his wife Evgenia.” (July 11, 2022). UN Watch repeatedly made more such appeals to Bachelet. Regrettably, to no avail.

[3] This followed a December 2020 Joint Statement by UN human rights experts on China’s crackdowns against dissent.

[4] See, for example, the July 2019 Joint Appeal to Michelle Bachelet by 22 Countries concerning abuses by China in Xinjiang; and the October 2020 Joint Statement delivered by Germany on behalf of 39 Countries on China’s abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Similar joint statements were delivered in 2021 and 2022.

[5] In addition, Bachelet made two statements that addressed Turkey’s obligations to investigate the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, however, both statements were essentially criticisms of the Saudi government, and therefore did not qualify as criticisms of Turkey.

 

 

 

UN Watch

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