Michelle Bachelet—the boundary-breaking former president of Chile, under-secretary general of the United Nations and executive director of UN Women—is now stepping into a new role in the world of global politics as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights.
As the world’s highest human rights officer, Bachelet will oversee the global body’s work on a range of critical issues—including the persecutions of religious minorities and LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East and North Africa, crackdowns on human rights in Venezuela and widespread violence and injustice in Latin America. She comes to the role at a critical time: Bachelet is assuming the office, previously held by Jordanian prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, during what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called “a time of grave consequence for human rights.”
“Hatred and inequality are on the rise,” Guterres noted in July, during a speech giving approval for Bachelet’s appointment to the post. “Respect for international humanitarian and human rights law is on the decline. Space for civil society is shrinking. Press freedoms are under pressure.”
Guterres and al-Hussein alike, however, have both expressed optimism that Bachelet, a fearless and outspoken leader for global human rights, is ready for the task at hand. al-Hussein left Bachelet with one piece of simple advice when she assumed her new post: “just come out swinging.” She already has.
In her first speech as human rights chief, Bachelet called for the creation of a new mechanism to examine and prepare indictments for the crimes committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya people, which includes systematic and widespread sexual violence. Such a mechanism already exists for the crisis in Syria to examine the cross-border deportation of thousands of minority citizens, which Bachelet supported.
Bachelet’s statement comes amidst widespread outcry from advocates urging the UN to take more action on behalf of Rohingya women and girls, and signals her uniquely feminist leadership style. Her resume alone qualifies her for this new post, but her remarkable personal story and her passion for fighting for women and girls will undoubtedly shape her tenure.
In 1973, a military coup left General Augusto Pinochet in power in Chile. In the following years, Bachelet, who was studying medicine at the time at the University of Chile, was imprisoned for her membership in the Socialist Party, which opposed Pinochet’s dictatorship. Her parents were also arrested: her father was tortured and killed; she and her mother were tortured and survived. Bachelet does not go greatly into detail about what she faced in prison, only stating that she endured “physical hardships,” but after her release she spent years in exile.
Bachelet returned to Chile in 1979 and dedicated herself to policy and advocacy. While Pinochet was still in power, she went through training to be a mental health professional and aided torture victims of Pinochet’s military; after her return, she was named the first defense minister in Latin America by Chile’s then-president Ricardo Lagos. She assumed his post in 2006—becoming the first popularly-elected female president in South America and the first woman ever elected president in Chile after a political campaign that centered on defending and expanding the rights of indigenous people, women and the country’s working class.
In 2010, Bachelet completed her term and left office in order to serve as the first executive director of UN Women—helping to launch the then-$10 million agency which incorporated the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women and the United Nations Development Fund for Women. In 2014, she resigned to pursue another term as president in Chile—and won.
Now, Bachelet once again returns to the global stage—with her head held high and her determination clear. “Those who defend human rights and the victims look up to the High Commission and hope that we are there to defend and support them,” she said in her introductory speech as the world’s foremost authority on human rights. “And I’ll do everything on my side to make sure we do so.”