UN: Robust leadership from new human rights chief needed to protect free expression

ARTICLE 19 warmly welcomes the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and looks forward to her leadership in protecting and promoting human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, around the world.

Bachelet’s appointment was confirmed by a vote by the UN General Assembly on 10 August, approving her nomination by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Bachelet will take up the post on 1 September, when outgoing High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s four-year term as the UN’s top official on human rights comes to an end.

Bachelet, a Chilean national, promises to bring a unique perspective to this crucial role as a survivor of human rights abuses herself. Her father was arrested and tortured for his opposition to the military coup led by General Pinochet in 1974, and subsequently died in detention. Bachelet and her mother were themselves arbitrarily detained for several months and tortured, spending years in exile upon their release. Though she trained as a paediatrician, Bachelet went on to become Chile’s first woman President – serving two, non-consecutive terms – and a tireless advocate for women’s rights, including by serving as Director of UN Women.

She will be the fourth woman to hold the UN’s most senior human rights role since the creation of the office in 1994, and the third High Commissioner from the Latin America region.

The role of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is both crucial and challenging. With less than 4% of the total UN budget, OHCHR supports the work of the UN Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review, special procedures, and the UN treaty body system. It is mandated to not only speak out objectively against human rights violations and abuses, but also provide expertise and technical assistance to States in meeting their human rights obligations. It both leads efforts in setting human rights standards, including on freedom of expression, as well as monitoring and assisting with their implementation on the ground.

With the international human rights system and its rules under intensifying attack, as repeatedly highlighted by the outgoing High Commissioner, Bachelet’s appointment comes at a challenging time.

Whilst shoring up political and financial support for OHCHR will be an urgent priority for Bachelet, this must not come at the cost of OHCHR continuing to speak out forcefully against human rights violations and abuses, and effectively supporting civil society’s role in demanding accountability for them.

Zeid’s four-year term was marked by his commitment to challenging both those governments who commit human rights’ abuses and those who turn a blind eye to them, regardless of the political or diplomatic ramifications. His forthright approach made him a champion of victims of human rights violations worldwide. Human rights advocates the world over will expect the same uncompromising approach from Bachelet.

Under Zeid’s leadership and in the context of its strategic plan, OHCHR progressed a number of freedom of expression priorities, including, inter alia:

  • Digital rights: the office notably increased its focus on protecting human rights online, setting important standards on challenges to freedom of expression, including mass surveillance, the gender digital divide, as well as supporting the important work of the UN special rapporteur in this field.
  • Development and the safety of journalists: with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, OHCHR has also taken on the task of monitoring the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies. Target 16.10 requires the office, in partnership with UNESCO, to track the number of killings of journalists and media workers.
  • Expanding civic space: the office has led on monitoring and pushing against global restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Notably, they have also addressed reprisals against human rights defenders engaging with the UN system, and led reports calling for greater transparency and civil society engagement with the UN itself.

ARTICLE 19 thanks Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein for his work for human rights and civil society over the last four years, and welcomes Bachelet’s appointment. We look forward to working with her, and continuing to work with her office, in furthering these and other priorities for the protection of freedom of expression.