GENEVA: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that she would not seek a second term and will step down in August.
The surprise announcement came during a wide-ranging speech to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council’s opening session. She told reporters in Geneva that she was retiring for personal reasons.
Bachelet made a trip to China last month for which she was criticised by rights groups as well as some Western governments, including the United States, who said conditions Chinese authorities imposed during the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the rights environment.
“As my term as High Commissioner draws to a close, this Council’s milestone fiftieth session will be the last which I brief,” she said, without giving a reason.
Bachelet, a former president of Chile who is seen as close to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, is expected to stay on after her term expires later this year.
In her speech, she said her office was working on an updated assessment of the human rights situation in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where there are widespread allegations that mostly Muslim Uyghur people have been unlawfully detained, mistreated and forced to work.
China denies all accusations of abuse in Xinjiang. “It will be shared with the government for factual comments before publication,” she said of her report, which was due to be published months ago, without giving a timeline.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, called her China trip an “unmitigated disaster” and criticised Bachelet for using China’s term “VETCs”, for vocational education and training centres, to describe mass detention facilities in Xinjiang.
On the rights situation in Russia, she said the arbitrary arrest of a large number of protesters there opposing the invasion of Ukraine was “worrying”. Bachelet also raised concern about setbacks to women’s rights and abortion restrictions, referring to the United States where the Supreme Court is expected to strike down a landmark ruling on nationwide abortion rights.
At UN Headquarters in New York, the UN chief praised Bachelet’s services, saying, “From her earliest days in Chile with enormous personal sacrifice, she has been on the frontlines of the human rights struggle all her life.
“In all she has done, Michelle Bachelet lives and breathes human rights. She has moved the needle in an extremely challenging political context – and she has made a profound difference for people around the globe.”
The Secretary General’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that UN chief would soon name the best possible candidate to replace her.