On September 1, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, took office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her long record of success in Chilean politics has prepared her well for this assignment, which could easily become one of the toughest of her career.
The office she leads is under attack, and not only from authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, and Russia. American officials – and in particular, National Security Adviser John Bolton – are also working hard to undermine the office’s effectiveness.
Among Bachelet’s top challenges will be persuading the US Congress to block efforts by the Trump administration to withhold funds from her agency in violation of US treaty obligations.
That message may be a hard sell, but her experience makes her uniquely qualified to deliver it. In 1975, Bachelet and her mother were imprisoned and tortured by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime.
For several weeks, Bachelet was blindfolded and strapped to a chair in the Villa Grimaldi detention centre in Santiago as her captors threatened to kill her mother. They were eventually released and allowed to go into exile in Australia, and then to East Germany.
Bachelet’s father, an Air Force general, died of a heart attack from the torture he suffered during his imprisonment for opposing the military coup that brought Pinochet to power. And Bachelet’s then-partner, a leader of the country’s Socialist Party, was detained and disappeared during the dictatorship.
After Bachelet returned home in 1979, she became a doctor and later studied military science in Chile and the United States. When democracy was restored in 1990, she served as health minister and defense minister, before twice being elected president. In the interim, she led UN Women, the UN’s office for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
As the UN’s human rights commissioner, Bachelet is succeeding another distinguished administrator, Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Zeid was an outspoken critic of rights abusers, and his public statements were always well informed, perceptive, and fair.
During his four-year tenure, no government or group received special treatment for political or geopolitical reasons. Although Zeid did not seek a second term because of what he called pressure to curb his candor, the standards he set strengthened the UN’s reputation as a global defender of human rights.
But Zeid’s approach also put a bull’s-eye on the office and its work. Presidents Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt, and Vladimir Putin of Russia, along with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, frequently accused the agency and its boss of bias. In the US, Bolton is using similar language as he leads efforts to slash the office’s annual budget. This is the breach into which Bachelet steps.
Like Zeid, Bachelet will not take direction from the UN Human Rights Council. While high commissioners carry out the Council’s work, they essentially function as free agents, able to air their opinions freely. That is a good thing.
The work of the Council – an intergovernmental body of 47 UN states that operates with rotating membership – has long been influenced by national interests. For example, in June, the Trump administration cut America’s ties to the Council, citing its frequent criticism of Israel. And, because membership can include rights violators themselves, its agenda is susceptible to politicization.
Still, the quality of the Council’s output has been improving. A recent report on Myanmar, for example, pulled no punches and directly accused the country’s military leadership of committing genocide against the Rohingya. Other recent contributions that earn high marks include inquiries on Syria and North Korea.
Bolton has sought to undermine the effectiveness of the UN ever since 2005, when President George W. Bush installed him as US ambassador to the organization. The US Senate’s eventual refusal to confirm the recess appointment limited the damage that Bolton might have done. But, today, Bolton has even more power; it will once again be up to Congress to ensure that his destructive influence is kept in check. If Bolton gets his way in damaging the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (as well as the International Criminal Court, at which he took aim on September 10), Bachelet’s stellar resume will not be enough to keep human rights atop the UN agenda. - Project Syndicate