Activists Welcome Michelle Bachelet as New UN Human Rights Chief

Posted on: August 10, 2018, by :
Michelle Bachelet (left) in 2011 with Navi Pillay, the last woman to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Michelle Bachelet will take over as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at an extremely challenging time, but she has what it takes to succeed, and she has our support.

While head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet set the standard for engagement with civil society, making sure that her door was open to women’s rights activists. She led the way in inviting women’s groups to advise and guide her work. We hope that openness will remain her model as High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As her work at UN Women has shown, civil society has much to offer in the decision-making processes of international diplomacy. Activists should be empowered to do so, and not simply be invited as a side show.

There undoubtedly is scope for greater involvement of civil society in the work of OHCHR and the Human Rights Council. The council in particular is dominated by member states. The core of human rights is that they are above politics. That has clearly not been the case in the recent debates and work of the council. It is a situation that perhaps requires a politician, rather than a diplomat, to navigate. Michelle Bachelet has twice served as president of her country, which suggests she has the political nous and clout required to make OHCHR and the Human Rights Council positive institutions.

We will measure her success by how accessible they are to women’s groups and especially women in conflict zones, how prepared they are to take governments to task, and how they protect human rights defenders. This last point is particularly important to us as colleagues of Salwa Bugaighis, the Libyan human rights activist whose murder has still not been properly investigated. We can never allow impunity for those who threaten and attack human rights defenders.

The need for passionate and dedicated human rights activism has never been greater. Across the world we continue to see gross violations of human rights, too often tolerated or even carried out by UN member states. Many of these occur in the wider Arab region. Agreements between European governments and militias in Libya to “control” migrant flows that have apparently led to the return of slave markets. Palestinians are routinely subjected to breaches of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Conflicts still see rape used as a weapon of war. Only yesterday, warplanes bombed a school bus in Yemen.

These violations and more need urgent action and accountability.

We recognise and are grateful for the work of outgoing high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. It has been an important and welcome step to have an outspoken champion of human rights from the Arab region serve in this role. Prince Zeid’s tenure has shown the tightrope that the commissioner must walk, but we are very happy that he found his voice and became so forthright in his defence and promotion of human rights.

We hope that Michelle Bachelet will bring the same sincerity, as well as her commitment to inclusivity. When she calls on civil society to support human rights, we will be there.