#HumanRightsDay: I have to be the voice to the powerless - Michelle Bachelet

We speak to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the status quo of human rights across the world. Picture:Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

We speak to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the status quo of human rights across the world. Picture:Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 10, 2018


Exclusive: Today marks 70 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Noni Mokati chats to former Chilean President and now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the status quo of human rights across the world.

Before she relinquished her position in government in March this year, Michelle Bachelet had a myriad of responsibilities. One of these, which she was vehemently determined to see through, was to ensure that the dignity and rights of fellow Chilean men, women and children were upheld. Now in her new position, she maintains that her mandate is very clear.

“I have to be the voice to the powerless,” she said. On Friday, Bachalet joined South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg where both leaders spoke on the important role the declaration of human rights has played post World War 2.

It is also at Constitution Hill where Bachelet said she was exposed to the harsh conditions that female political prisoners in the country were subjected to.

“I’ve been to prison. No prison is nice. But to see the size of the cell that these women were detained in made me realise the inhumane conditions they were detained under. Yes, we remember the declaration of human rights in the centenary year of Nelson Mandela but not everyone knows about the struggle that these women prisoners endured. It speaks of their great character. It speaks of how powerful women are,” she said.

Although the signatories of the universal declaration functioned under a different political and social climate seven decades ago, the laws contained in the charter still play a significant role for today’s society. They are laws which South Africa, under the democratic dispensation, has framed its Constitution around, resulting in it becoming one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world.  

To commemorate the anniversary, the UN has over the last 30 days published a series of 30 short articles on each of the 30 Articles contained in the Universal Declaration which include, among others, the Right to privacy, work, equality before the law, freedom from slavery, and discrimination.

The Rights contained in the declaration have, however, not gone without scrutiny or criticism. At times they have been rejected by some sectors of society over cultural and religious beliefs.

Bachelet, a qualified pediatrician says she has witnessed a plethora of human rights violations against children and has deliberated and held dialogues on a number of issues such as child marriages and the universal rights of women who often have been silenced under patriarchal instances. She emphasises that no culture or religion can trump the rights of any individual.

“For a child not to gain access to quality healthcare simply because their parents have certain beliefs is concerning. The Right to life is essential. Beliefs should not endanger anyone. At some point, culture has to evolve. When you naturalise something that is not natural such as beating a woman up or abusing a child that cannot be right. We have to speak up… The state should always give options to people and create an awareness around their rights.”

To achieve this, Bachelet believes it is essential that national and local governments have good and concrete data which they can use to disseminate factual information to the masses.

In a world where climate change, famine, inequality and conflict compels a majority of people to leave their native countries in search for a better life and better opportunities, increasing levels of migration have emerged over the last decade. In Europe, thousands of migrants have put their lives in danger crossing the Mediterranean. The Irish Times recently reported that “worldwide, the number of migrants has increased to more than 250 million, or just over four percent of the world’s population.”

As world leaders gather in Marrakesh to approve the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration on Monday, Bachelet, who also formed part of the migrant statistics in the past when her great grandparents were compelled to leave France, says it is imperative that nations establish sound policies around the plight of those who seek safety and better conditions.

“Migration is not today’s issue. It is historic. Yes, many of the countries who show disapproval of migrants are too dealing with their own battles which include inequality. But it is imperative that we do not build bridges or wall but rather identify challenges that many of the migrants face and deal them in an orderly manner,” she said.

When her tenure ends, Bachelet maintains her main objectives are to ensure that she has prevented the violation of human rights and that objectives of Agenda 2030 have been fulfilled so that no one is left behind.

Independent Media

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