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Chile's first female president Michelle Bachelet will rise to human rights mission

Jewel Samad, AFP | In this file photo taken on September 20, 2017 Chile's President Michelle Bachelet addresses the 72nd UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York.

The United Nations General Assembly met on Friday and approved Michelle Bachelet’s appointment as the world body’s new human rights chief.


The former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, was chosen by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to replace Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who will step down from the post at the end of the month after a four-year term.

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner is the principle official who speaks out for human rights across the whole UN system. Key duties are described as "strengthening human rights mechanisms, enhancing equality, fighting discrimination in all its forms, strengthening accountability and the rule of law, widening the democratic space and protecting the most vulnerable from all forms of human rights abuses".

Bachelet’s predecessor, al-Hussein, was noted for being outspoken. He regularly criticised President Trump’s policies and government, most recently over the decision to separate young children from their parents in a crackdown on immigration.

It is likely Bachelet will not shy away from confronting the hard issues either. During her Chilean presidency, she was noted for pushing for a more radical tax-and-spend agenda, as well as broader abortion rights and gay marriage. But she is first and foremost a women’s rights champion and this will be central to her manifesto in her new UN position.

“Women’s rights will certainly be at the forefront, but she [Bachelet] will also consider the broader picture,” Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, told FRANCE 24. “She has two important qualities that will be crucial to how she manages her new position. Firstly, she is a former president. She is only the second head of state to be high commissioner for human rights after Ireland’s former president, Mary Robinson. And this means she already has personal experience of meeting heads of state, she is used to sitting at the top table. So she cannot be shunted off on lowly junior representatives, as some of her predecessors have been. She can demand a meeting with a president and her reputation means she will get it.

“And, secondly, she has already spent a number of years as the head of United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). This means she knows how the UN system works from the inside. She has already worked out how to manage the bureaucracy and to maintain her reputation.”

Bachelet’s name was almost tarnished by her tangential connection to a corruption scandal in 2015. She became involved in controversy when her son, Sebastian Davalos, was accused by the opposition of using his influences to get a large bank loan for his wife. Chile’s national bank regulator cleared Davalos of any wrongdoing, but the issue had already become a political scandal. Davalos resigned as head of a government charity and apologised for any harm this had done to his mother and to the Chilean government.

First head of UN Women

This happened soon after Bachelet was reappointed as Chile’s president after a four-year break. During those years she served as the first executive director of then newly created UN Women.

Bachelet also has an incredible personal story of overcoming adversities. The daughter of a determined Pinochet opponent, she experienced firsthand Pinochet’s regime when she and her mother were interrogated and tortured at the notorious Villa Grimaldi. She went into exile first in Australia and then in East Germany, before returning to Chile and becoming a doctor. Then, as a single mother, she turned to politics and became the Minister for Health, followed by the Minister for National Defense. She was appointed the first female president of Chile in January 2006.

Describing her new role, Koh said Bachelet needs to be an insider-outsider. “She needs to be a team player but she also needs to maintain a critical distance,” said Koh. “We call this the French Horn phenomenon; you need to play with the other instruments in the orchestra to create a cohesive sound but you need to also preserve your own distinctive voice. And I believe she will achieve this. It’s a delicate game that she must now play, but she has managed to play this game before and she is an inspired choice for the role.”

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