A Torture Survivor Is The New UN High Commissioner For Human Rights – So Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?
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A Torture Survivor Is The New UN High Commissioner For Human Rights – So Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?

By Kate Bermingham, Sub-Editor 5 Sep 2018
Institutions

Yesterday, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet took over the reins from Zeid Raad Al Hussein to begin the biggest human rights job at the United Nations – she became the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is, or at least it should be, a huge deal.

Her office will manage an annual budget of around US$250 million. She’s responsible for promoting and protecting the human rights of all people, across all territories, including those that are not member states of the United Nations (such as the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Vatican City).

She’s also responsible for ensuring that human rights are fully embedded into all UN activities, including peace operations, the Security Council and development initiatives.

The genocide in Myanmar, war crimes in Syria and Yemen, and human rights emergencies in Venezuela and Nicaragua are at the top of her to do list.

Right, So Who Is Michelle Bachelet?

Michelle Bachelet is the new face of human rights at the UN

Image Credit  :Municipalidad de el Bosque / Flickr

She’s now the seventh High Commissioner for Human Rights, but before that she was twice elected President of Chile (in 2006 and 2014), and the first woman to occupy that role.

She also became Chile’s (and Latin America’s) first female Defence Minister in 2000, and the first Director of UN Women in 2011, so she’s something of a feminist trailblazer.

She is also a torture survivor. Herself and her family were tortured and she had to flee the country to escape.

As you’d perhaps expect, she’s a passionate human rights advocate. During her time as President of Chile, she set up a National Institute for Human Rights, and a Ministry of Women and Gender Equality.

She also instigated affirmative action to increase the proportion of women in political office, and passed the Civil Union Act, which granted equal rights to same-sex couples.

Ms Bachelet is also a torture survivor. Under the Pinochet regime, herself and her family were tortured, and she eventually had to flee the country to escape. She subsequently returned to Chile and worked as a paediatrician before embarking on a career in politics.

So Why Does Nobody Seem To Care About This?

michelle bachelet in haiti

Michelle Bachelet in Haiti. Image Credit: UN Women / Flickr

You’d think that a new leader for the most senior human rights job in the world would make some serious headlines in the UK. After all, she’s responsible for representing us at the highest levels of the United Nations and ensuring that our human rights are protected.

So, why the radio silence from all the major news outlets? Despite the fact that virtually all the major newspapers in the UK cover international affairs, Reuters was the only London-based major news outlet to cover Ms Bachelet’s first day in office. It was, however, covered by ABC in Australia, Deutsche Welle in Germany, France24 and The New York Times.

Maybe the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights didn’t do enough to let the press know about the new incumbent. Or perhaps, the newspapers did hear about it but decided that readers didn’t care enough?

So, What Needs To Change?

people reading news papers - which didn't cover michelle bachelet's appointment

Image Credit: Jay Clark / Unsplas

It’s impossible to know exactly why the papers decided not to cover this story. But one thing’s for sure – we all need to be more aware of the global human rights movement, and that includes keeping track of what’s going on at the UN.

After all, as a member state, the UK contributes to the UN on a financial, diplomatic and political level. Most of these resources will be spent on international development and peace and security. Just 3-4 per cent of the UN budget is allocated to human rights.

But for this to happen, consumers have to want the news.

Many human rights activists will argue that this needs to change: human rights are just as important as the other two pillars of UN activity. But in order to get a bigger slice of the resource pie, the human rights movement needs to demonstrate that the public really cares about its goals.

Better, and more thorough, coverage of human rights stories by the national media would help to demonstrate the important role of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But for this to happen, consumers have to want the news. This means more people need to be reading, sharing and getting involved with human rights stories online.

Featured Image Credit: UN Women / Flickr

About The Author

Kate Bermingham Sub-Editor

Kate is a journalist and communications professional who specialises in social issues and human rights. She is currently pursuing an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Galway, Ireland.

Kate is a journalist and communications professional who specialises in social issues and human rights. She is currently pursuing an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Galway, Ireland.