The U.S. Sought to Derail Michelle Bachelet’s Bid for Top U.N. Human Rights Job

The Trump administration was troubled by her views on abortion, Israel, and Latin America.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the opening day of the 39th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 10, 2018. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the opening day of the 39th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 10, 2018. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration mounted an unsuccessful campaign last year to derail the appointment of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, claiming her political views on Israel were troubling and citing photographs in which she appeared alongside “Latin American dictators.”

The effort was documented in a confidential Sept. 6 memo that Nikki Haley, then-U.S. ambassador to United Nations, wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, detailing U.S. and Israeli objections to Bachelet’s appointment and the manner in which her selection was handled.

In the memo, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, Haley complained that questions Washington had raised repeatedly about Bachelet’s political qualifications for the job were ignored. While the memo does not say that the United States explicitly called on the U.N. to block Bachelet’s appointment, it makes clear that Washington firmly opposed it and tried to stall the hiring process until it could make its case.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations declined to address the specific claims in the memo, but a spokesperson from the mission said U.S. concerns with Bachelet’s nomination were not new. “We appropriately expressed these concerns in addition to our concerns with her appointment process as we would for any high-level U.N. appointee—through direct, private communications with the secretary-general’s office,” the spokesperson said.

A State Department spokesman added that “it should come as no surprise that the United States assesses carefully the qualification of individuals considered for senior U.N. positions. All U.N. member states do so according to their own interests, and none should apologize for it.”

The campaign against Bachelet came at a time when the Trump administration was growing increasingly hostile to U.N. human rights institutions, which it complains are biased against Israel and draw excessive attention to human rights abuses by the United States.

The U.N. scrutinizes the human rights records of all of its member states.

The United States has frequently clashed with previous U.N. high commissioners, including Bachelet’s immediate predecessor, Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who regularly criticized President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on journalists and migrants.

The Trump administration withdrew from the 47-member Human Rights Council in June 2018, citing what it viewed as a bias against Israel and a history of extending membership to states with atrocious human rights records.

But it also found fault with Bachelet, a former political prisoner who was elected Chile’s first female president in 2006.

In 2010, Bachelet served as the head of U.N. Women, the agency charged with promoting women’s equality. She was elected for a second term as Chile’s president in 2013. Her standing took a hit over allegations that her son used his influence to obtain a loan for a lucrative land deal, but she remained something of a celebrity in diplomatic circles.

Following Bachelet’s inaugural address, Haley issued a stinging denunciation of the former Chilean leader.

“High Commissioner Bachelet continued the failures of the past, further validating the U.S. decision to withdraw, when she criticized both Israel and the United States while ignoring some of the worst human rights violators in the world,” Haley said in a Sept. 12 statement. “With serious human rights crises across the globe, it is highly regrettable that the new High Commissioner is following the same biased path of her predecessors, choosing to bash Israel and the United States.”

While Bachelet’s address included criticism of Israel and the United States, it also took aim at human rights abuses in many other countries, including China, Iran, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

Last May, Haley’s then-chief of staff, David Glaccum, and another U.S. aide, Morgan Viña, pressed the U.N. secretary-general’s chief of staff, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, to reveal whether Bachelet was a candidate for the top human rights job at the U.N. “They did not receive an affirmative confirmation,” Haley wrote.

It soon became clear that the U.N. chief was looking for a woman from Latin America to fill the job and that Bachelet had emerged as a leading candidate.

By the middle of July, Kevin Moley, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, and his senior advisor, Mari Stull, raised concerns about Bachelet’s “political positions” in two different meetings with David Vennett, a former member of Trump’s foreign-policy transition team who was hired by Guterres to help manage his relationship with the White House. And Haley complained that Bachelet hadn’t requested a courtesy visit with the United States in the early stages of the campaign.

“Stull later sent messages to Vennett expressing her objections,” the memo reads. “These included photos of Bachelet side by side with Latin American dictators.” It remains unclear which Latin American leaders she was referring to.

Stull had also expressed concern to a colleague about Bachelet’s role in legalizing abortion in Chile, a conservative Catholic nation, according to a diplomatic source. He maintained that Bachelet “might have been a credible global figure if she hadn’t decided to become the world’s leading advocate for abortion,” the source told FP, adding that it was “impossible to overstate her fixation on that one issue.”

Viña, Haley’s aide, continued to press the U.S. case against Bachelet in a July 23 meeting with Vennett.

“Viña told Vennett that the Israelis communicated that the SG [Secretary General] was considering Bachelet and are not supportive and that we also had concerns,” Haley wrote. “Viña communicated concerns that Bachelet was weak on Latin American dictators and wouldn’t he helpful on Israel issues.”

On Aug. 6, Vennett emailed Viña indicating that Guterres planned to appoint Bachelet despite U.S. reservations.

The following day, Viña pressed Vennett to urge the U.N. chief to slow down the appointment process to allow for further discussion. Haley, meanwhile, placed a call to the U.N. chief to halt the process. But on that same day, Bachelet was offered the job.

The news infuriated Haley, who canceled her request for a phone call to Guterres.

“[This] is not a good way to build trust and confidence. You know we can’t support Bachelet for OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], right?” Kelley Currie, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, wrote in a text message to Vennett. But by then, Bachelet’s appointment had already been announced to the press.

Guterres sought to smooth things over in an Aug. 8 email to Haley, telling the top U.S. diplomat that “he only became aware of U.S. concerns surrounding the OHCHR candidate selection process” two days earlier—several weeks after the United States began raising concerns.

It didn’t appear to satisfy Haley, who concluded her memo, saying: “I hope this timeline provides clarification for you and your team and reflects how important consultations on this appointment were to us and our disappointment on how this was poorly handled.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch