Appointment of New U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

On August 8 U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced his nomination of  Michelle Bachelet to be the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. On August 10 the nomination was approved by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. [1]

Ms. Bachelet was most recently President of Chile between 2014 and 2018, having served previously from 2006 to 2010, the year in which she was appointed the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women).  Ms. Bachelet also held ministerial portfolios in the Government of Chile, serving as Minister for Defence (2002‑2004) and Minister for Health (2000‑2002). She was imprisoned and  tortured under the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Initial Reactions to the Appointment

The current High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, whose term ends August 31, said, “I am truly delighted by the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion, and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful High Commissioner. The UN Human Rights Office looks forward to welcoming her and working under her leadership for the promotion and protection of all human rights, for everyone, everywhere.”[2]

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, immediately commented on this selection. She said it was incumbent on Ms. Bachelet “to speak out against” what the U.S. regarded as the U.N. Human Rights Council’s failures “to adequately address major human rights crises in Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and elsewhere, or stop its chronic, disproportionate obsession with Israel.” The Ambassador also noted what she called “the Council’s  consistent failure to address extreme human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere, in Venezuela and Cuba in particular.”[3]

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), which is based in Madrid, Spain, called this appointment a”grave error.” This was based on its opinion that she had shown a “weak commitment to fundamental rights” during her two terms as President of  Chile.[4]

At the General Assembly, however, Cuba congratulated Bachelet on her appointment and said  Cuba “trusts in her proven experience and knowledge to perform an excellent performance in her position, away from double standards, politicization and selectivity.” Cuba also regretted the U.S. lukewarm acceptance of the appointment coupled with criticism of Cuba and then the Cuba representative launched Cuba’s litany of complaints about the U..S. A similar statement was issued by Venezuela.[5]

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[1] U.N., Secretary-General Nominates Michelle Bachelet of Chile as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); U.N., Former Chilean President Bachelet put forward by UN chief as next High Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018); Reuters, U.N. General Assembly Approves Chile’s Bachelet as Rights Chief, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2018).

[2] U.N. Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid warmly welcomes appointment of new UN Human Rights Chief (Aug. 10, 2018).

[3] U.S. Mission to U.N., Statement by Ambassador Haley on the Nomination of Michelle Bachelet to be UN Commissioner for Human Rights (Aug. 8, 2018).

[4] The OCDH considers the designation of Bachelet as head of human rights at the UN a “grave error,” Diario de Cuba (Aug. 9, 2018).

[5] Cuba and Venezuela congratulate Bachelet for her appointment to the UN, Cubadebate (Aug. 10, 2018).

 

Spain Invokes Universal Jurisdiction for Three Criminal Cases Against U.S. Officials and Soldiers

As discussed in a prior post, under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. These crimes of international concern are (a) piracy; (b) slavery; (c) war crimes; (d) crimes against peace; (e) crimes against humanity; (f) genocide; and (g) torture.

Spain has implemented this principle in its own domestic law and has invoked it in significant cases, including the attempt to prosecute Augusto Pinochet, the former President of Chile, for alleged human rights violations in his home country and Spain’s pending prosecution of former Salvadoran military officers for the November 1989 murder in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter (the Jesuits case).

We also have seen that torture is illegal under international law and that the U.S. is a party to the multilateral treaty against torture. As a result, the U.S. has submitted reports about its compliance with the treaty to a U.N. committee.

All of these elements come together in three pending criminal cases in Spain against certain U.S. officials for their alleged involvement in torture allegedly committed by U.S. citizens who were employees of the U.S. military or government:

  • One relates to the alleged use of torture at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is directed at “members of the American air forces or military intelligence and all those who executed and/or designed a systemic torture plan and inhuman and degrading treatment against prisoners in their custody.”
  • Another case is against six members of the George W. Bush Administration who were involved in drafting legal memoranda that allegedly facilitated the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention facilities around the world (the so-called “Bush Six” case)  .
  • The third case concerns the killing of a Spanish journalist-cameraman in Baghdad, Iraq on April 8, 2003, by a U.S. tank’s firing on a hotel where the man was staying.

Each of these three cases will be the subjects of subsequent posts.

On January 19, 2012, another front in these battles was opened with the filing of a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. On the basis of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City and Berlin’s European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights alleged that U.S. and Spanish senior governmental officials improperly have attempted to interfere with the judicial process in these three cases. This important development also will be discussed in a subsequent post.[1]

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[1] The issue of judicial independence under international law is currently being litigated in a case against Ecuador.