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international civil servants in Geneva

Michelle Bachelet speaking at the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, February 24, 2020. © UN Photo/Pierre Albouy
Michelle Bachelet on her motivations, achievements and human rights during Covid
7 Dec 2020

On 10 December, the world celebrates Human Rights Day. We have asked Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to share her views and insights. 

Your role as High Commissioner receives a lot of attention, and also criticism, given the sensitivity of human rights topics. Can you tell us why you chose to take on this job?

I believe that the solutions to the challenges we face have got to be built on human rights principles and human rights law. Whether it’s related to climate change, COVID, conflict, new technologies or inequalities, policy that is grounded in human rights will be more effective – because it is more inclusive, more fair, and therefore more sustainable.

Civil society plays a crucial role in advancing all human rights, defending diversity, developing better and more effective policies and ensuring State accountability. But the civil society space is not just being eroded: in many countries it is being shut down. Many women human rights defenders are at heightened risk – particularly activists for sexual and reproductive rights – and women’s equality more generally is under attack. The gains in fighting poverty and hunger are being reversed. These are issues that concern me.  We must help States build better systems.

Michelle Bachelet meeting with the families of the disappeared Tlanixco, Mexico April 2019. © OHCHR Photo

For most of my life, I have been convinced that human rights provide the best solutions to our challenges. I’m a paediatrician and a politician, and as I said when I took up my post, good governance is based on identifying and fixing obstacles to well-being and justice, and good doctoring is based on building resilience, too – you strengthen healing processes, and intervene to interrupt symptoms of pathology.

“Under my mandate, we’ve strengthened our focus on sustainable development and economic and social rights.”

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

10 December is Human Rights Day, an occasion to take a look at what progress has been achieved. What do you feel are the principal achievements of the Office of the High Commissioner under your mandate?

Under my mandate, we’ve strengthened our focus on sustainable development and economic and social rights, including the right to social protection and the right to health. We also continue to work with UN partners to advocate for human rights-based environmental action.

The pandemic has been an unprecedented upheaval, and I’m proud of the speed of our response. At the country level, we have engaged to include marginalized populations in response and preparedness plans. We’ve developed extensive guidance on specific thematic issues, such as the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls; emergency measures; preserving civic space; data responsibility and the right to privacy; people in detention, indigenous peoples, migrants, minorities, racial discrimination, LGBTI people, people with disabilities and older people. With other UN partners, we developed human rights indicators and a Checklist for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Socio-Economic Country Responses to COVID-19. These are immediately effective tools, technical assistance and pertinent, practical guidance.

Sessions of the Human Rights Council provide a context in which the human rights agenda can be advanced. COVID-19 has recently shaken the structure of those sessions. What measures have you taken to respond to these unexpected challenges?

Despite the many odds, the Council managed to hold its three regular sessions scheduled for this year, after suspending its 43rd session in mid-March. It was the last organisation in Geneva to go into lockdown, and the first to take up its work in June, after UNOG premises were re-opened. During the three-month lockdown, the Council Bureau, led by its President, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger and supported by our Office, explored innovative ways to conduct its work, including virtual technologies. To me, this has been an impressive demonstration of the Council’s resilience and adaptability, and the President’s commitment to avoiding gaps in promoting and protecting rights.

Michelle Bachelet in Bunia, Ituri Province in January 2020 speaking with internally displaced persons. © MONUSCO Photo.

Without its dedicated personnel, the Office of the High Commissioner would not be able to respond to its mandates. What measures do you plan to take to preserve the motivation of the staff, and their sense of belonging to the institution, in this difficult period? 

From the outset, we kept a focus on keeping staff informed of the pandemic and what it might mean for them, with a “hotline” email address for quick replies as well as regular all-staff communications. We’ve also reached out to provide dedicated psychological support and well-being tools. With help from the UN Staff Counsellor’s Office and our consultant Chartered Psychologist, staff and managers have participated in over 50 team webinars and more than 320 individual discussions.  

“Throughout the crisis, we have tried to emphasise flexibility and understanding in these exceptional circumstances.”

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Throughout the crisis, we have tried to emphasise flexibility and understanding in these exceptional circumstances. It is vital to ensure that staff can retain a healthy work/life balance. We’re also focused on asking our staff to help us learn from this experience, so we can improve the way we work, and address human rights gaps. It’s important to keep moving forward, searching for ways to build a better and more sustainable world.

* Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council. Prisca Chaoui est Secrétaire exécutive du conseil de coordination du personnel de l’Office des Nations Unies à Genève (ONUG).
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