SANTIAGO – Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet is nearly six months the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights now. Six hectic months, full of worldwide tensions and heavy criticism. For Bachelet, her first months must have felt like the initiation at a university society, thanks to Venezuela.
“Michelle Bachelet: come here and move your ass with the authority you have, and if you don´t, you don’t serve for your job!” Latin pop singer Miguel Bosé didn’t hold back when he addressed the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Live Aid Concert for Venezuela in Cúcuta.
Although he apologized shortly after, his words marked the criticism that encircles the former Chilean president in her handling of the Venezuelan crisis. For months, Venezuelan families of political prisoners and politicians have asked her to visit the country, to witness the crisis for herself.
Targeting Bachelet in the Venezuelan crisis
Guarequena Gutiérrez, the Chilean ambassador under interim president Juan Guaidó, told Bachelet to go to a Venezuelan hospital and witness “people dying on the hospital floors”. The Lima Group, in a joint statement after their meeting in Bogotá on Monday, urged Bachelet to “respond as soon as possible” to the situation in Venezuela.
Chilean politicians, the majority right-wing who’ll do anything to tackle Bachelet’s popularity in Chile, called her out. They are aware that Bachelet, in her position, is limited in her options. At the same time it showed that the Venezuelan crisis has turned into an international conflict, with both sides divided along the political spectrum.
#Venezuela: @UNHumanRights Chief @mbachelet condemns violence at the country's borders. "The Venezuelan government must stop its forces from using excessive force against unarmed protesters and ordinary citizens.” See full statement -> https://t.co/reQeRR7vVq pic.twitter.com/Sgh9OjulwZ— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) February 24, 2019
Human Rights Commissioner: not the easiest job
Bachelet began in her first speech as Human Rights commissioner by calling out countries such as China, the United States and Saudi Arabia and many expected her to continue where her predecessor Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had stopped. But although she has condemned violence in countries all over the world, from Yemen to Syria, from Myanmar to Nigeria, Bachelet is dealing with a body that has lost power, as autocrats from around the world are little concerned with the condemnations from the ex-president.
For the UN Human Rights Council, headed by former president Bachelet, it is important to stay neutral and protect their mission: human rights. Bachelet jumped in at a most difficult time: The United States withdrew from the Council in 2018, new political and social movements are challenging human rights worldwide and climate change is asking for a new definition of human rights.
For Bachelet reason to present earlier this year “the most ambitious program of work ever drawn by my Office,” with an appeal for US$ 321.5 million. And the crisis closest to home, in Venezuela, shows again that both the United Nations and the Human Rights Council are not the global powers they once were.
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Bachelet and Venezuela: what are the options?
So, what can the UN Human Rights boss do? In September 2018, Bachelet was invited by the Venezuelan government to come and see the situation in the crisis-struck country, after Bachelet herself had asked for Venezuela to let in a team of experts to investigate killings by security forces from the Maduro administration.
But visiting Venezuela and meeting with the representatives of the Maduro administration, or even President Maduro himself, would mean acknowledging Maduro as leader of the country. A meeting with one of the highest-ranking United Nations commissioners would mean for Maduro an option to display himself as the leader.
Asking Maduro to step aside is something the UN Human Rights Council won’t do either way: although the declaration from Juan Guaidó, presenting himself as the one and only legal president in Venezuela has a democratic foundation, the young leader has already turned into a playing ball of countries such as the United States, Colombia and Brazil, who all have their interests in Venezuela.
Michelle Bachelet must choose her words and deeds carefully in order to avoid getting forced to choose a side. For her as UN Human Rights Chief it means demonstrating the hollowness of the Human Rights Council by condemning the violations in Venezuela on Twitter – because for now, that is all she can do.