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Chile's Ex-President Michelle Bachelet Picked As U.N. Human Rights Chief


The United Nations has a new leading voice on human rights, Michelle Bachelet, a torture victim herself and former president of Chile. She was endorsed by U.N. member states yesterday to become the U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Though she wasn't in the room, Michelle Bachelet had no problem getting support in the U.N. General Assembly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is so decided.


KELEMEN: The 66-year-old is well-known in the U.N. hallways. She ran U.N. women in between her stints as president of Chile. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he couldn't think of anyone more perfectly suited for the job.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: At home, she has known the heights and the depth as the first woman to serve as the country's president but also as a survivor of brutality by the authorities targeting her and her family many decades ago.

KELEMEN: She takes office at a tough time, though, the secretary general says.

GUTERRES: Hatred and inequality are on the rise. Respect for international humanitarian and human rights law is on the decline. Press freedoms are under pressure.

KELEMEN: Many U.N. diplomats praised Bachelet as up to the task. But in her statement, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley urged Bachelet to avoid the failures of the past. She wants the U.N. to focus more on Venezuela and Cuba rather than what she called obsessing with Israel. A former State Department official, Rob Berschinski, was surprised by Haley's tone.

ROB BERSCHINSKI: It just struck this hostile tone right off the bat, with none of the normal diplomatic niceties of welcoming Bachelet into an important, big, new position - and thought that, ultimately, it just kind of reflected the United States coming across as looking like something like a bully.

KELEMEN: Berschinski, who's with the advocacy group Human Rights First says the Trump administration's recent decision to pull out of the U.N Human Rights Council could make Bachelet's job harder.

BERSCHINSKI: Without that voice there from the United States, those that care about these issues, that care about protecting minorities and protecting citizens in repressive countries, have all that much more work cut out for them.

KELEMEN: Michelle Bachelet replaces Zeid Raad Al Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat who had run-ins with the Trump administration when his office criticized the U.S. practice of separating children from their parents at the southern border. U.S. Ambassador Haley accused the U.N. Human Rights Office of hypocrisy. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.