Header image for news printout

Commencement ceremony at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

19 May 2019

Dean Janow,
Distinguished members of the faculty,
Dear studens and family members
Dear friends,

It is an honour to be speaking at this joyful occasion. We are here to celebrate your skills and knowledge, as you pause at the opening of a new chapter of your lives. We celebrate the bonds you have shaped; the paths you are preparing to take.

Schopenhauer tells us, “Life may be compared to a piece of embroidery, of which, during the first half of his life, a man sees the right side, and during the second half of his life, the wrong... The wrong side is not so pretty as the right one, but it is more instructive; because it shows the way in which the threads have been worked together.”

Of course, he meant a person, not specifically a man, but you see the point. As you look backwards, once you have enough perspective, in the random choices and accidents that pulled your life in one or another directions, there were also patterns, and turning points. Points where – if you had not turned – you would have become a very different kind of person. 

When I was 24, I had to flee my country. My father, who had been detained and tortured, was dead; my mother and I had also been detained. My fellow Chileans were being abducted, disappeared, killed and abused by the military dictatorship, which had seized power. My studies were interrupted; I had no idea how long I would be gone.

For four years I improvised. Everything was unexpected, and not always in a good way. I went to Australia, then East Germany, learning new languages and  continuing my medical training. I know what it is to feel anger, fear, those moments when hope drains away and despair floods in.

When I was 28, I returned to Chile, with a child, and a great yearning to contribute to the country I had longed for. I earned my medical degree and worked with an NGO, which gave support to children whose parents had been disappeared or tortured. Each of these children had been harmed in some way – or many ways -- because men in power – almost all the authorities at that time were men – had chosen for this to be so. In every street were families living in the economic misery and pain created by abuses of authority.

I learned to set aside my anger and to replace it with an approach focused on dialogue – on finding a common ground of understanding, in which we could begin to resolve the divisions between both camps.

Democracy was regained in 1988. The dictatorship retreated and Chileans grew more demanding and more fearless – more involved in new networks which pressed for greater rights and freedoms. There was a tremendous surge of intellectual energies –cultural, social, political.

I became Chile's Minister of Health in 2000, the first woman in this post.  Afterwards, I became Minister of Defence in 2002, the first woman in the Americas to do so, in a country that was still fractured by the dictatorship.  We set up and strengthened other processes for reconciliation and accountability, as well as empowering women in the Armed Forces.

Chile has built sound, democratic institutions which ensure justice; political, economic and social stability; and poverty reduction. It has continued to build up the trust of the people, fostering cooperation between the State and its citizens – which is the only sustainable way to ensure progress for everyone. This was – and is – an immense process, the great transformative dialogue of solutions, which has involved many people. I am honoured to have served in it. My two mandates as my country's President were a tremendous opportunity to contribute. I feel the same about my work at UNWomen, and now, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Today I speak as High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also as a paediatrician; as a former President and Minister; as someone very much versed in military affairs; as a feminist; and as a mother and grandmother.  

When I prepared to enter the adult world, I could not have predicted any of this. I am telling this story because I know you, too will face an immensity of choices. And as you prepare to open this new chapter of your lives, you may be feeling burdened by the need to define your life's purpose – your goals, and that legendary "dream" you keep being told you should be living.

That is a very challenging quest. I cannot offer you a key that unlocks a safe and planned next-level experience. My life has been much more messy and turbulent. Yours will be too.

But I can tell you that in times of crisis – when the future is worried and there don't seem to be many good options –  you will find that core values will ground you. So that no matter how unpredictable the winds, you will know that the path you shape through life will be one with integrity.

Allow me to suggest what those principles may be, because perhaps we share them.

Whatever you brought to this university, you have certainly learned that no matter how deeply you examine one topic in international relations, that effort will always feel incomplete, because each topic and each country is connected to so many others.

We are not alone. Other people matter. Justice matters. Violence, exploitation, discrimination and injustice have far-reaching consequences. By trying to see matters with full clarity, and understand others’ points of view; by acting with integrity, to advance justice and human rights; by seeking always to build on your love for other people and all forms of life; by looking to construct, and advance – rather than to destroy -- you will be shaping a life for yourself that holds steady to your principles.

I look at this class of young people, fluent in public policy and international relations, trained in multiple disciplines, with a focus on the different viewpoints, which make up our multifaceted world.  I see how you have learned to brief theory and practice  and the broad and deep knowledge you have put together from so many sources of perspective and reform.

The world around us is very jittery and fearful now. The pace of technological change and environmental destruction is quickening. Human beings are breaking our planet: catastrophic climate change, declining biodiversity, mass extinctions, plastic-polluted oceans are urgent threats. And the motivation of world leaders to constructively and jointly address these issues is flagging.

We need you. In a very real sense, it is up to you. Your generation will face the full force of this failure to act. Or, as I am convinced can be done, you will turn the tide, and shape a new consensus to resolve these problems.

Money is no excuse. The cost of human rights action, or climate action, is really very little, compared to the terrible destruction and cost of inaction.

We have a path to solve the problems of climate change, and growing conflicts. We have the 2030 Agenda, which has been fully negotiated by every State in the world, which can eradicate extreme poverty and inequality, including far more people in the benefits of development. The Paris Agreement sets out the terms for the commitments undertaken by all States to focus action in mitigation and and they have the potential for real impact. All of these measures rely on support for human dignity, equality and human rights.

The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, health, food, shelter, clothing and social security. Freedom from any form of discrimination, whether based on sex, race, belief, sexual orientation or any other factor. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy.  Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention. The right to a fair trial.

These and other fundamental rights and freedoms are the elements that build resilient societies – which are able to withstand and surmount threats, peacefully resolve disputes, and facilitate sustained progress in prosperity and well-being for all their members.  

You know this is true. Because it has been true in your own lives. Those of you who have benefited from life in peaceful and sustainably prosperous societies are living in countries, where people's rights are being upheld.

It is the principles of human rights that build more stable, more peaceful and more adaptable societies. With dialogue, cooperation, and respect, they are a detailed guide through the unpredictable challenges of future events. Whether they involve transformations of the digital landscape or the prospect of violence, human rights principles and law have been constructed to protect humanity from danger.

So in this celebration of your achievements, as you look forward to what is to come, I suggest you live with your great-grandchildren in mind. You cannot know who those children will be, where they will live, what they will look like, even the languages they will speak. You cannot know how many great-, and great-great-grandchildren you will have.

But you can work for all of them. For their well-being, their freedom, the sustainability of their environment, and for their rights as human beings to live in equality and dignity.

Thank you.