Who is Michelle Bachelet, the new UN Human Rights chief giving India a hard time on Kashmir

Michele Bachelet, Presidente of Chile speaks during Special Session of the Human Rights Council. 29 March 2017. Image Courtesy: UN

Newly appointed United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently slammed India for lack of any ‘meaningful improvement’ on addressing issues highlighted in the UN report on human rights violations in Kashmir.

It was Bachelet’s first address to the United Nations Human Rights Council after her appointment while succeeding Zeid Raad al Hussain as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights this month.

Zeid Raad al Hussain’s report on Kashmir was called ‘motivated‘ by India.

“In her opening remarks at the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet said “the people of Kashmir had the same rights to justice and dignity as people all over the world.”

ALSO READ: Deeply disappointed at India’s reaction to Kashmir report: UNHRC

“The people of Kashmir have exactly the same rights to justice and dignity as people all over the world and we urge authorities to respect them,” she said.

Bachelet also reiterated the UNHRC’s request for unconditional access to Kashmir on either side of the Line of Control, the report said.

In August 2018, the United Nations nominated Veronica Michelle Bachelet Jeria the next High Commissioner for Human Rights, replacing Zeid Raad Al Hussein.

Michelle is a Chilean Politician and also the first woman President of Chile who occupied the position in 2006 till 2010. She was later reelected in 2014, only to become the first woman to be reelected since 1932. She once again served the position till 2018.

Amid applause filled the assembly hall on her new post, Bachelet thanked the delegates on Twitter saying she was “deeply moved and honored to be entrusted with this important task.”

Born in Chile’s Santiago, Michelle’s disturbing experiences shaped and influenced her political career. The 66-year-old believes that she had always been driven by a desire to do something for the general population. Politics, she believes, is like medicine on a larger scale.

Her father being a military official, Bachelet spent many of her childhood years travelling around her native Chile, moving with her family from one military base to another.

During the 1973 military coup in Chile, her father, Alberto Bachelet, an air force officer, had remained loyal to the former President, and the first Marxist to become the president of a Latin America country through open elections, Salvodor Allende, which in return brought him and his family many sufferings.

The decision of refusing to take part in overthrowing the elected socialist leader led to his immediate arrest and torture; the aftereffect of the torture cost him his life.

Later, the young Bachelet and her mother, archaeologist Angela Jeria, were also taken to the notorious Villa Grimaldi torture center, where they were tortured during interrogations.

“They put a hood over my head, threatened me and hit me. But I was spared the grill,” Bachelet said as she later recalled her experiences. The “grill” was a frame for administering electric shocks.

When she and her mother were finally released by the military junta’s henchmen, they fled via Australia to the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

ALSO READ: HRW expresses disappointment over India’s response to UN report, urges UNHRC to take action

The bloody coup underway in Chile at the time triggered a wave of solidarity among socialist countries. The GDR was among the states that demonstrated the most commitment to refugees from Chile, organizing their expatriation and taking in several thousand of those who fled. The GDR head of state Erich Honecker, whose son-in-law was from Chile, declared the mission to be a matter for the top office.

Bachelet, who had already joined the socialist movement in her youth, lived in exile in the GDR for five years. There, she studied medicine at East Berlin’s Humboldt University.

She later said about her time in Germany that it helped her to recognize the value of work and efficiency, and that she learned to be open to a foreign society.

She has also worked at PIDEE (Protection of Children Injured by States of Emergency Foundation), a non-governmental organization helping children of the tortured and missing in Santiago and Chillán. She was head of the foundation’s Medical Department between 1986 and 1990.

Bachelet later worked for the Ministry of Health’s West Santiago Health Service and was a consultant for the Pan-American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit.

Between March 1994 and July 1997, Bachelet worked as Senior Assistant to the Deputy Health Minister. Driven by an interest in civil-military relations, in 1996 Bachelet began studies in military strategy at the National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (ANEPE) in Chile.

In 1998 she worked for the Defense Ministry as Senior Assistant to the Defense Minister. She subsequently graduated from a Master’s program in military science at the Chilean Army’s War Academy.

Following her return from exile she became politically active during the second half of the 1980s, fighting — though not on the front line — for the re-establishment of democracy in Chile.

In 1995 she became part of Socialist Youth’s Central Committee, and from 1998 until 2000 she was an active member of the Political Commission.

ALSO READ:  Accountability for rights abuse cannot be suspended while waiting for a political solution to Kashmir, says UNHRC Chief

On 11 March 2000, Bachelet — virtually unknown at the time — was appointed Minister of Health by President Ricardo Lagos. She began an in-depth study of the public health-care system that led to the AUGE plan a few years later.

She was also given the task of eliminating waiting lists in the saturated public hospital system within the first 100 days of Lagos’s government. She reduced waiting lists by 90%, but was unable to eliminate them completely and offered her resignation, which was promptly rejected by the President.

She authorized free distribution of the morning-after pill for victims of sexual abuse, generating controversy.

On 7 January 2002, she was appointed Minister of National Defense, becoming the first woman to hold this post in a Latin American country and one of the few in the world.

While Minister of Defense she promoted reconciliatory gestures between the military and victims of the dictatorship, culminating in the historic 2003 declaration by General Juan Emilio Cheyre, head of the army, that “never again” would the military subvert democracy in Chile.

A moment which has been cited as key to Bachelet’s chances to the presidency came in mid-2002 during a flood in northern Santiago where she, as Defense Minister, led a rescue operation on top of an amphibious tank, wearing a cloak and military cap.

In late 2004, following a surge of her popularity in opinion polls, Bachelet was considered the only politician of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación de los Partidos por la Democracia; CPD) able to defeat Joaquín Lavín, and she was asked to become the Socialists’ candidate for the presidency.

At first hesitant to accept the nomination as it was never one of her goals, she finally agreed because she felt she could not disappoint her supporters. On 28 January 2005 she was named the Socialist Party’s candidate for president. On 30 January 2006, she was declared the President of Chile.

Bachelet is no stranger to the United Nations. Between her two terms of office, she was head of UN Women, the UN organization striving for female equality.

She succeeds Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in her new role as UN human rights chief. Zeid, whose appointment was derided as being tokenistic, became an outspoken figure who denounced the deterioration of human rights in many countries, regardless of possible political sensitivities.

The appointment of Bachelet may have quelled that fear. It is the first time in over a decade that a former head of state is once again at the helm of the human rights agency.

Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson held the post from 1997 to 2003. Bachelet’s political contacts from her terms as president will likely prove useful once again in her new role.

Many see her “perfectly suited” for the post.

In June, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council to protest a motion the international body passed against Israel. Funds from Washington for the UN organization were cut drastically.

At his farewell press conference in UN headquarters last week, UNHRC High Commissioner Zeid Ra’d Al Hussein defended his blatant criticisms on right abuses in dozen countries saying that his office doesn’t “bring shame on governments, they shame themselves.”

ALSO READ: Seven times countries dismissed UN Human Rights reports in the recent past

He said, “silence does not earn you any respect -none.” He added that he will give his successor the same advice his predecessor, Navi Pillay, gave him, “Be fair and don’t discriminate against any country” and “just come out swinging.”

During his term, the UN published a 49-page report citing human rights violations by armed forces in Kashmir. India responded by calling the report ‘fallacious, tendentious and motivated’.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India had said the report was “overtly prejudiced” and sought to build a “false narrative”. New Delhi had also lodged a strong protest on the use of terminology in the report, saying that the body had departed from internationally accepted terminology.


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