United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has nominated Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, to become the next UN high commissioner for human rights. The nomination has been sent to the General Assembly for approval.
Bachelet, who is 66, was Guterres’s top choice all along in the selection process, which began informally in the spring, after the current human-rights commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat, announced he would not seek a second term.
Bachelet most recently finished her second four-year term as president of her country in March 2018. She previously was president from 2006 to 2010. In between those years, from 2010 to 2013, she was the first executive director of the UN Women agency. She is currently chair of the board of the World Health Organization’s Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and a member of Guterres’s high-level mediation board.
For Bachelet, the importance of protecting and advancing human rights is deeply personal. In early adulthood, she suffered imprisonment and torture, compelling her to flee into exile. Her family was torn apart by tragedy. Back in Chile, a marriage fell apart but divorce was illegal, and all around her, women had limited freedoms in charting their own lives in a conservative Roman Catholic society.
She made the rights of women a priority when she became president of Chile in 2006 and introduced numerous social and educational reforms in both of her terms.
The trajectory of her life may make her uniquely prepared to be the next UN high commissioner for human rights, a post that can involve advocating for people’s rights against their governments. Bachelet’s strengths as a survivor underpin her remarkable rise to leadership of a country that was still recovering from dictatorship. And she achieved her presidency as a religious agnostic, a single parent, a Socialist and a feminist in a traditionally chauvinistic region.
Bachelet was born in Santiago, Chile’s capital, the daughter of a Chilean Air Force general, Alberto Bachelet Martinez, and a famous Chilean archeologist, Ángela Jeria Gómez. She was close to her father, who was tortured and died of a heart attack in prison in 1974 under the dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Years later, she told reporters that her father’s life and tragic death helped her understand the anguish of career professionals in military service and the sacrifices many officers made in opposing strongman rule.
Her five years in exile, mostly in what was East Germany in the 1970s, allowed her to continue medical training that she had begun in Chile. She studied at Humboldt University in Berlin, then completed her medical training on her return to Chile, specializing in pediatrics. She was named Chile’s health minister in 2000.
But Bachelet, who honored the memory of her father while looking ahead to a political role in a democratic Chile, had taken time out of a career in medicine to study military strategy at the National Academy of Strategic and Political Studies in Chile and at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C.
She became Chile’s — and Latin America’s — first female defense minister in 2002 and was elected president of Chile in 2006. As head of state from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018, she was the first woman in South America popularly elected to the presidency who did not owe her political career to a male relative, usually a husband.
Her two terms in office, which could not be consecutive under Chilean law, were often challenging if not tumultuous. Labor unrest and mass protests by students critical of the country’s public-education system created tensions. Bachelet pushed ahead with many social and political reforms nevertheless.
Bachelet, whose surname Chileans pronounce with a hard final T in Spanish style, moved to raise revenues and close some income gaps by increasing corporate taxes and eliminating loopholes enjoyed by the rich. She proposed making higher education free for the poorest Chileans and encouraged the creation of more public universities, among other reforms.
She survived a family finance scandal in 2015-2016 when her son, Sebastián Dávalos, was accused of using his political influence to help his wife obtain a large bank loan, with which she brought property to sell at a profit. He was cleared by the country’s national bank examiner, but his wife, Natalia Compagnon, was charged with falsifying documents to avoid more than $160,000 in taxes. Bachelet’s popularity plummeted as the scandal shook her government, although she maintained that she did not know about the events involving her family.
She was back in stride eventually to handle widespread protests against the country’s privately managed pension funds, responding by introducing administrative changes.
For women, the highlight was Bachelet’s victory in 2017 in passing a law that overturned a ban on all abortions instituted by General Pinochet, working with Catholic Church support. When the Constitutional Court upheld the legislation, which allowed exceptions but was considered a significant step toward more comprehensive reform, Bachelet said:
“Today, women have won, democracy has won, all of Chile has won.”
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.
[This article was updated.]
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.