UN's dubious human rights appointment

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As Chile continues to grapple with the struggle between memory and oblivion, the UN's nomination of former president Michelle Bachelet as Human Rights Commissioner has evoked different opinions.

Michelle BacheletFor many victims of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, Bachelet had represented a link between politics and justice, in particular due to her own family's history as victims of Pinochet's National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) agents. Her father, General Alberto Bachelet, was arrested in September 1973 and subjected to intense torture which triggered a fatal heart attack in 1974, according to forensic reports. Bachelet and her mother were also detained and tortured at Villa Grmaldi. Her interrogator was none other than DINA Chief Manuel Contreras.

Chile's National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) expressed satisfaction at the appointment, describing it as 'a tremendous signal for the advancement of Chile's jurisprudence'. So too did Francisco Estevez, director of Santiago's Museum of Memory, who spoke about Bachelet's new role as reflecting responsibility and commitment.

Memory groups, however, are not enamoured of Bachelet's position at the UN. Alicia Lira, President of the Association of Families of Executed Political Prisoners (AFEP), denounced the news, pointing to Bachelet's lack of introspection regarding her presidencies as regards advancing justice and human rights, as well as her broken promise to close the luxury prison of Punta Peuco which houses DINA's worst torturers. Her inaction is now reaping repercussions as former torturers are appealing for parole, emboldened by the right-wing government of Sebastian Pinera.

Despite her own experiences, Bachelet's presidencies were tainted with Pinochet's legacy. Since the end of the dictatorship, there has been a mixture of inability and unwillingness to challenge Pinochet's previous calls for oblivion. Bachelet was no exception. Under her rule, the application of anti-terror laws to Mapuche resistance were a regular occurrence, while many individuals with dictatorship ties held influential positions in Chile and in diplomatic positions abroad. In 2014, Bachelet nominated former CNI agent, James Sinclair, as Chilean ambassador to Australia.

When human bone fragments were discovered in 2014, just ten kilometres south of Santo Domingo, close to the first known dictatorship torture and extermination centre Tejas Verdes, the Chilean military refused to collaborate with the courts and Chile's Forensic Medical Service (SML). This prompted the late director of SML, Patricio Bustos, himself also a torture victim of Pinochet's dictatorship, to declare: 'This is an action of concealment by the perpetrators of that era.'

Seeminhgly none of this mattered to the UN, the international organisation that purportedly safeguards human rights. Last year, the now outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein had criticised Bachelet for human rights abuses that were allowed to flourish under her rule.

 

"As part of the institution, Bachelet's errors will be swallowed into oblivion."

 

In his comments, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres embarked upon selective remembrance as he hailed Bachelet's appointment, focusing on her identity as a torture victim and survivor while eliminating any mention of her role in allowing impunity to make further inroads during her tenures.

There is a precedent that is common to Chile and the UN in this case — namely the rewarding of failure to address human rights violations in a way that brings complete justice to the victims. This is by no means an isolated case.

Hence it is important that Bachelet's appointment is discussed away from the framework promoted by the UN. Primarily, it should raise questions as to how a torture victim can become complicit in impunity as president. That such complicity is ignored at an international level should contribute to the growing mistrust in the UN as human rights 'guardian'.

It is easy to perceive the role of the UN Human Rights Commissioner as unrelated to the individual's country of origin due to the international background of the organisation. As the UN takes centre stage, previous roles are obscured. Bachelet has moved on from one role into the next.

Likewise, her omissions as regards furthering impunity and the application of anti-terror laws — a relic of the Pinochet dictatorship — to the Mapuche, will now slide into an unquestionable realm. There is no chance that the UN will criticise their new Human Rights Commissioner. As part of the institution, Bachelet's errors will be swallowed into oblivion.

Where can Chileans turn to demand justice? For thousands of dictatorship victims who never held, or aspired to, an influential position, the chasm between the legitimate cry and access to complete justice will remain, as long as complicity and indifference keep churning new collaborators.

 

 

Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Michelle Bachelet, Chile, Pinochet, United Nations

 

 

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A perceptive article, Ramona. The questions you raise about Michelle Bachelet's presidency are very similar to the questions people are raising about Aung San Suu Kyi as 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar.
Edward Fido | 26 August 2018


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