As Bachelet takes a bow, what did the UN rights chief accomplish?

UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet at the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva on 13 June, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Michelle Bachelet will step down on 31 August as UN high commissioner for human rights after four years marked by unprecedented human rights crises and multilateral relations reaching an all-time low. As Covid, climate change and the ripple effects of the war converged, fraglising economies and pushing the world’s most vulnerable further over the edge, the political divide among countries deepened.

The former socialist president of Chile has been praised for her role in elevating the impacts of climate change, vaccine inequality, poverty and racism on human rights, and at the same time harshly criticised for not speaking loud enough against authoritarian regimes in the likes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China.

For some, Bachelet was a skilled political leader who improved the relationship between the UN human rights office and weary developing states. For others, she undermined the office’s credibility by shutting activists out and cozying up to authoritarian governments. The 72-year-old leaves Geneva as a polarising figure whose impact on human rights can only be measured in time.

Impossible expectations

Appointed on an impressive resumé as Chile’s first female president, the former head of UN Women and a torture survivor, Bachelet had high expectations to meet from the start. She had experienced in her own flesh the horrors of political repression under dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime and civil society saw in her a sure and strong voice for victims of rights abuses.

“As a victim herself, she brings a unique perspective to the role on the importance of a vigorous defence of human rights,” Kenneth Roth, then executive director of Human Rights Watch, had said in a statement at the time of her appointment. Four years later, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs do not hide their disappointment.

“She failed to engage sufficiently with independent civil society or really show solidarity with victims. And instead she appeared to privilege access and friendly relations with governments over strong and principled public advocacy,” Phil Lynch, executive director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), told Geneva Solutions.

While lauded as a human rights champion, her approach was far from the advocates' taste. Marc Limon, executive director of Universal Rights Group, said: “It's almost inevitable that the expectations of NGOs were not met because she was never going to be another Zeid.”

Bachelet’s predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, was known for being outspoken and unafraid to call out by name the political leaders that he considered to be dangerous to human rights, from Donald Trump to Matteo Salvini to Nigel Farage. This made him “insanely popular among the NGO community”, according to Limon. He would regularly meet with rights groups, perhaps more than Bachelet ever did. On the downside, this put Zeid at odds with developing states.

“A lot of developing countries didn’t like Zeid because they thought he turned the office of the high commissioner for human rights into a kind of campaigning NGO,” he said. Wanting a break from Zeid’s style, “UN secretary general Antonio Guterres handpicked Bachelet to bring a more balanced approach to the mandate”, said Limon.

‘I want to have outcomes’

From the start, Bachelet insisted that dialogue and cooperation was the way to improve human rights across the world and made a point of reaching out to pariah countries where the UN had little access.

Top of that list was Venezuela, whose economic collapse and political turmoil has caused over six million people to flee the country. After much lobbying – and possibly to undermine the UN fact finding mission pushed by rivalling governments in the region –, President Nicolas Maduro agreed to let Bachelet visit the country in 2019, a first ever for a UN high commissioner for human rights. He also allowed a small team of two people to stay behind.

But Lynch points out that, despite gaining access to the country, her assessment of the crisis has not been as strong as civil society had hoped: “It's a reflection of a general issue, which is that, of course, dialogue and cooperation and technical assistance are really important and legitimate ways to advance human rights where there is political will. But where violations are widespread and a part of government policy, as is the case in Venezuela and China, then what is even more vital is the monitoring, reporting and accountability functions of the high commissioner’s mandate.”

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Bachelet defended her approach. “We had nothing, we were out of Venezuela,” she said. “What we managed is to build cooperation and trust with authorities, civil society and victims over the last two years.”

Her trip to Xinjiang in late May, the first visit to China of a UN high commissioner for human rights in 17 years, was the culmination of a similar strategy. During her first speech as UN rights chief to the Human Rights Council in September 2018, Bachelet called out China for the reported arbitrary detentions of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in detainment camps across Xinjiang and urged the state to grant her access to the country. It took her four years of negotiations and stalling the release of a report on the region to get the Chinese authorities to agree to her demand.

During her visit, Bachelet obtained an agreement for future dialogue under her successor’s leadership, opening up the possibility for better UN monitoring of the situation on the ground than what exists today. But this has also given leverage to Beijing, which recently asked Bachelet not to publish the report in a leaked letter.

A week before the end of her term, Bachelet still remained vague about the publication of her long-awaited report on Xinjiang, only telling reporters that her office “had shared the findings with the government” and was “trying” to get the document out by the end of her mandate as she had promised.

The stunt has cost her the trust of certain civil society groups and even of some western governments such as the United States. But was it worth it? For Limon, quiet diplomacy can have long lasting impacts but it’s less visible than public advocacy.

Bachlet seemingly bet on convincing states to respect human rights rather than to pressure them to do so through naming. She led such a process in Sudan, where she opened an office in 2020.

In another first for a UN rights chief, Bachelet recently visited Cox’s Bazar, where Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees having fled the military offensive in Myanmar and conditions are deteriorating. She spoke to Bangladeshi authorities and offered assistance to improve the country’s human rights policy.

“I'm not interested in being a custodian of human rights. (...) I want to have outcomes,” she told reporters.

Enter climate change and Covid

While her approach to highly political topics may have been divisive, rights groups largely agree that she did advance environmental rights. “She recognised the triple planetary crisis of pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and others are using as a framework, and used it to show the greatest human rights challenge of our time,” said Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Bachelet’s office signed a cooperation agreement with UNEP in 2019 to raise awareness on the right to a healthy environment among states and to better protect environmental defenders threatened because of their work.

Her lobbying efforts contributed to the recognition of the human right to a healthy environment by the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, one of the UN’s major achievements in recent years, according to observers.  “I am proud of my pice’s support and strong backing of this movement throughout the course of my mandate,” said Bachelet.

Bachelet also led the fight against discrimination, calling out the US for its systemic racism through the symbolic case of the killing of George Floyd, but also blasting the US and the European Union for their restrictive migration policies. She has been strongly vocal against Russian abuses in Ukraine, alluding to possible war crimes, and for women rights in Afghanistan, which she recently visited.

At the press conference, the UN rights chief stressed that the world had “changed fundamentally” and blamed Covid for posing a barrier for her work. “I would’ve liked to do more, if we didn’t have the Covid-19 pandemic. I feel that that limited, so much, my capacity to be on the ground, to discuss with our colleagues and then with governments, with civil society, [and] to be able to go to many more places,” she said.

With her time in Geneva now drawn to an end, Bachelet said that she would go back to Chile, where she would vote in favour of the new constitution on 4 September. She refrained from sharing her plans for the future and only said that she would remain available to brief her successor once they are appointed by the UN secretary general.