UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Speaks About the State Of Human Rights

Ms Michelle Bachelet Jeria, who took over as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year in a period when human rights, including women’s rights, have been experiencing a push-back globally, spoke at the BSF about her take on a number of issues currently plaguing the world.

The former president of Chile, ostensibly selected by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for hear wealth and diversity of experience, spoke about her path from a civil society activist, public sector worker, minister, country president and to the current post, where she is able to more clearly understand the various perspectives and find arguments that convince individual stakeholders.

Commenting on the attitude of politicians, Bachelet Jeria highlighted the problem of the four-year election cycle that made them think in terms of short-term policies. She said she tried to make them aware that policies will be much more sustainable if they are grounded in people’s long-term concerns, which notably also includes gender equality.

The first concrete case raised by the moderator of the discussion, the BBC’s Mr Dan Damon, was Venezuela. Bachelet Jeria agreed she was probably allowed into the country with an observation mission because the government saw her capable of producing an unbiased report. The government did not like the eventual report, she said, but noted this was not unusual.

Commenting on sanctions against Venezuela, Bachelet Jeria hinted she felt closer to the EU’s approach of personal sanctions than to the “broad” approach that is for instance used by Washington in Venezuela and that is hitting the people, for example hospitals unable of getting basic provisions due to embargo, and is not really bringing down the government.

As for the push-back against women’s rights, she said she was consistently raising the issue and trying to present the empowerment of women not only as the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. “We need the whole team, women and men with all of their skills,” she said.

The discussion also touched on AI and human rights, with Bachelet Jeria pointing out her office was also trying to address so called frontier issues like climate change and AI. The latter looks like a scenario full of potential, “but we have for instance seen social media being used to spread hate speech”, that face recognition algorithms are gender and racially biased etc.

Different stakeholders have different perspectives here and the and Bachelet Jeria argued they needed to be brought together and made aware that fast action and ethical consideration is necessary to avoid potentially disastrous consequences.

Regarding migration, Bachelet Jeria stressed that very strong migration policies will not prevent people from migrating but will just make them pick more dangerous ways. The root causes need to be addressed, foremost among them inequalities, youth unemployment and various other issues also defined in the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda goals.

Also asked about Hongkong, Bachelet Jeria said her office had been in touch with “authorities and local authorities to try to promote a transparent and effective dialogue with the people so that they can try to find a political and peaceful solution”.

Bachelet Jeria, who finds it encouraging that Hongkong chief executive Carrie Lam also called for such a platform, condemned any violence, on the side of the authorities as well as the protesters. The solution can only be peaceful, she said, with the same applying to Venezuela.

Meanwhile, Bachelet Jeria, who see herself as “strategic optimist” but less confident when it comes to tactic, noted her experience in Chile, when she also had to work with people who had been the civilian faces of Pinochet’s dictatorship, had taught her it was also necessary and possible to meaningfully engage with people you don’t like. On the other hand, she finds having to deal with people who are abusing power for their own interests – featured in the bulk of the reports she receives – the most strenuous part of her job.