September 3, 2018 / 6:23 PM / 2 months ago

Bachelet takes office as new U.N. rights chief, activists seek strong voice

GENEVA (Reuters) - Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who took the helm of the U.N. human rights office on Monday, will need a strong voice in confronting populists and crises marked by war crimes, activists said.

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet speaks from her office at the Palais Wilson on her first day as new United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, September 3, 2018. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Bachelet swiftly called on Myanmar to free two Reuters journalists convicted earlier in the day for their reporting on the crackdown on Rohingya.

Bachelet was chosen by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to succeed Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan and the appointment was approved by the General Assembly last month.

She was tortured during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet but later rose to serve twice as Chile’s president.

She inherits an inbox that includes conflicts in Yemen and Syria and crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Just last week independent U.N. investigators said that six Myanmar generals should be prosecuted for “genocidal intent” and another expert panel said that some air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen may amount to war crimes.

“This is an extraordinarily challenging time for human rights, given the rise of autocratic populists, the increasingly muscular hostility of China and Russia, the loss of the US and often the UK as voices for human rights, and a leadership void making possible a proliferation of atrocities in such places as Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar,” Ken Roth, executive-director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

But he said some governments and U.N. officials hope she will be “quieter and more selective” than Zeid who criticized governments in China, Israel, Russia and the United States.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, which opens a three-week session on Sept 10, is due to hold a debate on extending the mandate of its investigators on Yemen. It will also examine the next steps toward ensuring justice in Myanmar.

Zeid left a political hot potato after saying in January that his office had found 206 companies doing business linked to unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank and urging them to avoid any complicity in “pervasive” violations against Palestinians. His report did not name the companies and said that its database was not yet complete.

“The immediate test she has got in terms of taking on the Council is the settlements database,” Roth said, saying that Bachelet should not delay publication of the list.

Another activist group, UN Watch, said last month that Bachelet has “a controversial record when it comes to her support for the human rights abusing governments who rule Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and we need to know how she plans to address these urgent situations.”

Zeid, asked last week his advice to Bachelet, told reporters: “To very much continue along the same trajectory.”

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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