Michelle Bachelet | The champion of rights

As OHCHR head, she has been forthcoming in taking up human rights issues 

September 04, 2022 01:41 am | Updated 01:48 am IST



It would have been out of character for Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, if she had not released the pending report on the human rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China, before her term ended. She went on to release the report merely minutes before the end of her four-year tenure. The report, which the Chinese government sought to stop publication, stated that the Chinese regime had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uighur people in the province.

The report went on to detail severe concerns with the treatment of people held in the so-called Vocational Education and Training Centres, a euphemism used by the Chinese to describe the detention centres for Uighur people, predominantly Muslims, between 2017 and 2019.

Beijing’s response was in line with its usual defence of its recent policies in Xinjiang — that the report was “based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces” and it “wantonly smears and slanders” China, besides amounting to an interference in its internal affairs.

Ms. Bachelet, in many ways, has been an unconventional politician and later a diplomat who has been unafraid of ruffling feathers. This was evident in the way Ms. Bachelet’s office (OHCHR, or the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) approached the Supreme Court of India in March 2020, asking to be impleaded in the petitions challenging the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act after informing the Human Rights Council that the OHCHR had “great concerns over the CAA”. The Indian government averred that no foreign party had any “locus standi” on what was an internal matter of India — a reaction that was on similar lines to the Chinese government’s riposte to the OHCHR’s Xinjiang report.

Other issues that the OHCHR has raised during Ms. Bachelet’s tenure included the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention in Yemen that resulted in a humanitarian crisis in that country and the repression of Palestinians, including children, by Israeli forces that continued into 2022.

Life under dictatorship

A two-time former President of Chile, Ms. Bachelet’s formative years were spent in repression by the military regime in the South American country. She had joined Salvador Allende’s socialist party — Unidad Popular — in 1970 while pursuing medical studies at the University of Chile. After Allende’s government was toppled in a murderous coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, her family was subject to severe repression — her father was accused of being a dissident, tortured in detention and died following a heart attack. Ms. Bachelet and her mother were both detained; she was roughed up but released from prison and later left the country, first to Australia and then to Berlin, East Germany, where she studied medicine before returning to Chile in 1982 and finishing a degree in paediatrics.

She joined public life as an activist who helped children of victims of political repression and later became an aide to a government health official in the early 1990s. Following an educational stint at the Interamerican Defense College in Washington DC, she became an aide to Chile’s Defence Minister in 1997 and soon became Health Minister and later Defence Minister in President Ricardo Lagos’ Cabinets in the early 2000s.

Running on a wave of popularity, Ms. Bachelet won the presidency in early 2006. Her first tenure coincided with the rise of other left-wing regimes in Latin America and her presidency was credited with guiding the country through a difficult economic period during the Global Financial Crisis, expanding the role of women in government, helping reduce poverty and improving primary education, besides funding pension schemes, and other social programmes.

At the end of her first term, she enjoyed a high approval rating of 84%. Her second term (2014-18) was relatively less successful — Chile’s economy suffered due to the downturn in international copper prices (the country is home to the world’s largest copper mines). While she attempted to address inequality in the country by instituting progressive taxation policies, labour reforms to strengthen union and collective bargaining rights, besides reform of the Pinochet-era “binomial system” in elections to a more proportional representation based system, the allegations of corruption in her regime marred her legacy.

Despite the fall in her popularity, Ms. Bachelet remained acclaimed for being a forceful woman head of State who had instituted several reforms in her two tenures and secured the OHCHR in 2018. As the outgoing head of the OHCHR, she would rightfully claim her landmark achievement to be the “report on racial justice and equality”, released in 2021 (a year after the George Floyd murder in the U.S.) that featured an agenda to end racism against African and African-origin people. In releasing the Xinjiang report, albeit belatedly, Ms. Bachelet went on to reclaim her legacy.

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