Michelle Bachelet, Former President of Chile, Appointed UN High Commissioner

Secretary-General António Guterres (right) meets with Michelle Bachelet Jeria, President of Chile
Credit: UN Photo

On August 10, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly approved Michelle Bachelet’s nomination for the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. [UN News: Appointment] The General Assembly’s decision followed the UN Secretary General’s announcement on August 8 to nominate Bachelet for the position. [UN News: Nomination] Bachelet will serve a four-year term, beginning on September 1, 2018, with a possibility of renewal for a second four-year term. [UN News: Appointment] Bachelet is replacing Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who began his term as UN High Commissioner in September 2014 and chose not to seek a second four-year term. [UN News: Appointment; NY Times: al-Hussein] Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein announced last December that he would not seek re-election because of the anticipated lack of support among “key world powers, including the United States, China and Russia.” [Reuters] He also was concerned that a second term would require him to be less outspoken in advocacy efforts and less independent given the current geopolitical climate. [NY Times: al-Hussein]

Nomination and Approval

The nomination and approval process to select a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is governed by General Assembly Resolution 48/141, which created the post for the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1994. See UN General Assembly, Resolution 48/141, High Commissioner for the promotion and protection of all human rights, U.N. Doc. A/RES/48/141, 7 January 1994. Resolution 48/141 instructs the UN Secretary General to appoint an individual for the position and the UN General Assembly to approve the individual, but the Resolution does not further delineate a nomination or appointment process. See id. at para. 2(b). It does, though, instruct both the UN Secretary General and the UN General Assembly to consider “geographical rotation” in the appointment process. See id.

Pursuant to Resolution 48/141, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, announced on August 8, 2018, that he was nominating Michelle Bachelet to be the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. [UN News: Nomination] Subsequently, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the nomination without the need for a vote. [UN News: Appointment; UN Press Release: Approval] While it is technically possible for the General Assembly to hold a vote to approve the Secretary General’s selection, the General Assembly has always approved the Secretary General’s choice without a vote. [UNA-UK: Nomination]

Nomination Procedure

The search process to find the Secretary General’s nomination for UN High Commissioner was publicly launched in June 2018 following a job posting on the UN Secretary General’s website and a “Note Verbale” sent to all UN Member States. See UNA-UK, Transparency Checklist. These described the selection criteria to be used in selecting a nominee, including a note emphasizing a geographic balance and the nomination of female candidates, and a nomination deadline of July 11, 2018. See id. Member States, individuals, and civil society were invited to submit nominations to the Secretary General’s office. See id. According to a letter from the Secretary General’s office, an expert panel interviewed candidates in the final rounds and recommended finalists to the Secretary General. The names of the nominees were not made public in order to maintain confidentiality during the recruitment process. [UNA-UK: UN Briefings]

Additionally, the UN Secretary General held “consultations with the Chairs of the regional groups of Member States” prior to nominating Michelle Bachelet on August 8. [UN Press Release: Nomination]

UNA- UK’s Assessment of the Nomination Procedure

The United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK), a charity whose mission is to advocate for the effectiveness of the UN’s work, launched a campaign to ensure an effective and transparent appointment process for the role of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. See UNA-UK, Transparency Checklist. In doing so, it assessed timing and transparency issues in the appointment process, drawing on the standards set forth in a 2011 report by the Joint Inspection Unit, an independent oversight body of the UN.

UNA-UK observed that the time between the announcement in June and the nomination deadline in July 2018, coupled with a start date of September 1, 2018, did not leave adequate time for a thorough nomination and selection process. See id. Given that the standard period for notice of vacancies of UN staff is three months, the UNA-UK expressed concern over a lack of widespread notice to potential nominees, a lack of civil society input, and a less rigorous vetting process. See id.

The UNA-UK’s transparency assessment of the nomination process considered when and how the vacancy was published, including the selection criteria; how the vacancy was advertised, including where it was advertised and how it called for nominations from both Member States and civil society; and the openness and inclusiveness of the process for selecting nominees. See id. The UNA-UK highlighted the lack of sufficient distribution and promotion of the job post in international publications, on social media, and in all UN official languages. See id. Further, the UNA-UK’s assessment noted that the terms of reference for the interview panel that was charged with assessing the nominees were not made available to the public. See id. Finally, with respect to inclusiveness, the assessment welcomed the emphasis on the nomination of female candidates and the call for a geographic balance, but also suggested that the nomination of differently-abled candidates and LGBTI candidates be prioritized. See id.

The Next UN High Commissioner: Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet is a former pediatrician who became involved in human rights advocacy domestically during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. [NY Times: Michelle Bachelet] She served as the first female President of Chile after experiencing torture during Pinochet’s dictatorship. [Reuters] Following her first term as Chilean President from 2006 to 2010, Bachelet served as the UN Under-Secretary General and as the first female executive director of UN Women. [NY Times: Michelle Bachelet] Bachelet served a second term as Chilean President from 2014 to 2018. [NY Times: Michelle Bachelet]

States and civil society have generally responded positively to Bachelet’s appointment. [NY Times: Michelle Bachelet] For example, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, remarked that her experience of being subject to human rights abuses will bring a “’unique perspective’” to the role. [NY Times: Michelle Bachelet] The United States, which has been sharply criticized by al-Hussein as High Commissioner in response to policy decisions made by the Trump administration, cautioned that Bachelet should “avoid the failures of the UN human rights system in the past.” [UN Press Release: Approval]

Bachelet is the eighth person to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since the post was created in 1994. See OHCHR, Who We Are. She will be the second individual to have been a head of State prior to serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. See id. Mary Robinson was appointed to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights after a seven-year tenure as President of Ireland. See OHCHR, Mary Robinson. No UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has ever served a full second term. [UNA-UK: Commissioner]

Mandate of the Position

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the “principal human rights official of the United Nations.” See OHCHR, Who We Are. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is charged with the protection and promotion of human rights, which includes preventing human rights abuses from occurring, coordinating UN educational activities, and integrating the human rights framework across all UN agencies. See id. The OHCHR’s mandate is derived from UN General Assembly Resolution 48/141, the Charter of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other human rights instruments. See id.

Additional Information

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