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“The journey to defend human rights never ends,” says Michelle Bachelet

31 August 2022

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  © Credit – UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

“The world has changed fundamentally over the course of my mandate,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “I would say the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ever-increasing effects of climate change, and the reverberating shocks of the food, fuel and finance crises related to the war against Ukraine have been the major challenges we have faced.”

As Bachelet ends her mandate as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights this week in Geneva, Switzerland, she looked back on her legacy over the past four years and her hopes for human rights in the future.

Pivotal moments

COVID-19 pandemic: The pandemic was a game-changer in terms of how States approach economic and social rights as well as protect those most vulnerable from disease. For the UN Human Rights, the pandemic meant reinvigorating our work relating to  social protection, as well as adjusting to new ways of (virtual) work and expanding the monitoring of human rights, Bachelet said. 

Many existing human rights issues facing the world surfaced and required swift action, including deepening poverty, rising inequalities, lack of access to healthcare, vaccine and treatment, discrimination, and violence against women. This meant that her Office had to quickly provide solutions to these challenges.

UN Human Rights was able to, in a time of crisis and isolation, provide effective and practical guidance to Member States and civil society to identify human rights trends, risks, the impact of national responses, and how to handle the crises with a human rights approach.

Despite the benefits of connecting virtually, this meant the High Commissioner could not travel as much as we would have desired to accompany different actors on the ground in their human rights journeys.

The right to a healthy environment: Bachelet said she is most proud of her Office’s support and strong backing of the recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  

“The recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UN General Assembly last month marked the culmination of many years of advocacy by civil society. This is also an issue I personally have been working towards for many years and in different capacities, including as a Stateswoman,” she said.

She encouraged States to step up their obligation to fully implement the right to a healthy environment.

“The extreme weather events of the past few months have again driven home, powerfully, the existential need for urgent action to protect our planet for current and future generations,” she said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke with Greta Thunberg, a young environmental activist from Sweden at COP25 Madrid 2019. Credit: OHCHR Photo/Anthony Headley

Strengthening economic, social and cultural rights: She also highlighted her interest in ensuring greater recognition of the interdependence of economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights.

The Surge Initiative was established by Bachelet in response to rising inequalities, the slow-paced implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and increasing social unrest. The aim of the initiative is to step up engagement at the country level on economic, social, and cultural rights, SDGs and prevention and strengthen the link between human rights and economics.

“Neither can exist properly without the other,” Bachelet  said. “Just for example: people must be able to voice concerns, associate and protest to influence and promote policies that guarantee access to work, food, health, shelter, social security.  States must draw lessons from the pandemic and the current food-fuel-finance crisis by designing long-term measures to build better and stronger universal public health and social protection systems.”

I am a strategic optimist, and I believe that if we are creative, we can build solid strategies and partnerships to promote some change even in the most difficult circumstances.

Racial justice and equality: Bachelet hoped that States also seize this moment to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice.   

“The worldwide mobilization of people for racial justice, notably in 2020, has forced a long-delayed reckoning with racial discrimination and shifted debates towards a focus on systemic racism and the institutions that perpetrate it. The momentum must not be lost,” she said.   

In 2021, the High Commissioner issued a landmark report on racial justice and equality that featured a four-point agenda to end systemic racism and human rights violations by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent. A second report to the Human Rights council will be presented in September. Bachelet also oversaw the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of a new Working Group to investigate police brutality against people of African Descent.

A voice for the voiceless

Bachelet paid tribute to women human rights defenders and credited them for raising the unheard voices of the most vulnerable.

“The journey to defend human rights never ends — and vigilance against roll-backs of rights is vital. This is particularly salient as populisms and misinformation have grown,” she said.

During her country missions, she spoke with women human rights defenders in Afghanistan, mothers of disappeared persons in Mexico, and health workers assisting victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

During her mission to Bangladesh, UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. Credit: OHCHR Photo/Anthony Headley

At her country visit to Bangladesh,  she met a teacher who had dreams of being a doctor, but ended up in a refugee camp having had to escape his country because he is Rohingya. He shared with the High Commissioner how he cries at night when recalls his dream and that of many of his Buddhist friends who are now doctors in Myanmar.

“My own experience as a refugee was not so daunting, with the means to continue my education and with a good standard of living — but the yearning for one’s homeland, the desire for some many of the Rohingya to return home resonated deeply for me,” Bachelet said.

The future for human rights

Bachelet urged the international community to continue working on all human rights issues and to not forget about the situations in Yemen, Syria, the Sahel, and Haiti.

“Polarization within and among States has reached extraordinary levels and multilateralism is under pressure,” she said.

Some crisis, like the one in Ukraine, have increased the existing polarization in the Human Rights Council and other multilateral forums, with Member States often feeling the pressure to take sides.

Finding the right channels to communicate the concerns and to figure out what the incentives are for those in power to do what is right is crucial. This is one of the biggest challenges of the mandate given to High Commissioners, including her successor.  

There are diverse ways to navigate this, but Bachelet said she would advise the new High Commissioner to always have an open dialogue with Member States and stakeholders. She also hopes that she will be able to meet with the new HC to provide consultation on her experiences on her lessons learned.

“Engagement and dialogue should never be at the expense of speaking truth to power, being the voice of the voiceless and promoting accountability for human rights violations.”