Michelle Bachelet leaves the UN and returns to Chile at a key moment in the constitutional process
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet leaves after speaking to the press at the opening of the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva on June 13, 2022.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet leaves after speaking to the press at the opening of the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva on June 13, 2022.FABRICE COFFRINI (AFP)

The socialist Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile for two terms (2006-2010 and 2014-2018) announced this Monday that she will not run for a second term to lead the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, a position she has held since September 2018. Through a statement, Bachelet argued “personal reasons”, for which she will end her duties on August 31. The announcement of his return to the country – “it is time to return to Chile and to my family” – has caused a stir in Chilean politics: it occurs at key moments in the constituent process, just 12 weeks before the plebiscite that will define the fate of a new Constitution, on September 4. The current president, Gabriel Boric, has reacted quickly to the news: “Welcome back”, he wrote to him through Twitter.

The Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres, expressed words of gratitude to the management of the Chilean socialist, who in May made a controversial trip to China. “I pay tribute to her tireless work and dedication as head of the UN Human Rights Office. I am deeply grateful for her exceptional leadership and her strong commitment to the realization of human rights for all.”

The weight that Bachelet may have in current Chilean politics is not evident. After his two terms, he handed over power to the right of Sebastián Piñera, in 2010 and in 2018. But the Chilean electorate has shown its volatility and the socialist has already stated that he is for the option of approving the new Constitution, that the convention constitutional refinement to deliver a final version to President Boric in the first days of July. “I think it is a great opportunity and I hope it will be approved,” Bachelet assured in May, although he said that he had not yet read the final document.

According to various surveys, there is a large number of undecided with a view to the referendum, which will be mandatory. The survey by the Center for Public Studies, released last Thursday, showed that 25% are about to approve the text and 27% are about to reject it, while 37% have not decided. 44% also say that they are not interested in the work of the convention. The role that Bachelet can play in the days before the plebiscite could help the option of approving a new text, which replaces the current Magna Carta that was designed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, but that in democracy has been reformed in dozens of occasions. The current Constitution, in fact, bears the signature of the socialist president Ricardo Lagos, who made the last great reform to the text during his mandate (2000-2006), where he removed the authoritarian enclaves.

In her last term, Bachelet carried out a citizen process to make a proposal for a new Constitution, but the project was presented in her last days at La Moneda. After today’s announcement, the analysis points to the role that it could play to push the option of approving the new text, as the Boric government seeks. “If indeed the undecided are predominantly women, over 55 years of age and from popular strata, Bachelet’s return for the approval campaign makes all the sense in the world”, assured the political scientist and academic from the University of Talca, Mauricio Morales.

Between Bachelet and the world of Boric, a different generation of the left, there is evident political harmony. The Broad Front was born with a very critical speech to the center-left Concertación that governed Chile between 1990 and 2010, a coalition of which Bachelet was minister and president in her first term. Boric himself, in fact, was highly critical of Bachelet on multiple occasions.

The doctor, however, who opened the coalition to the Communist Party – the beginning of the end of the alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists – pushed this generation of the left that she always looked favorably on. He did it since its foundation, where several of the current leaders of the Broad Front were formed, and with some direct political decisions to get seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the 2013 elections. His youngest daughter, in fact, was close to the Broad Front and voted for their candidates. “The young people of the Broad Front are children of militants of traditional parties,” said the socialist in 2017.

The controversy in China

Although the UN has not ruled on such a controversial issue, Bachelet’s visit to China at the end of May could be, according to various sources, at the origin of her decision. Before heading to China, the US State Department called the trip a “mistake” and warned that it would be used by Beijing for propaganda purposes. At the end of it, the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, criticized that Bachelet did not have access to people forcibly transferred by the Government to distant regions of the country, separating them from their families. In addition, according to Blinken, the authorities warned Xinjiang residents “not to complain or openly criticize their living conditions.” He also regretted that Commissioner Bachelet had not obtained more information about the disappeared Uyghurs.

The executive director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, described Bachelet’s management in China as “disastrous”, and stressed that someone “less diplomatic” and more critical of abuses should succeed her in office. These statements were made a few days before the resignation of the former Chilean president to repeat her term as head of the UN body was announced.

At a press conference on the global situation of human rights in the world, Roth assured that Bachelet’s trip to China, which took place between May 23 and 28, “could not benefit more the efforts of the Chinese Government for hiding the mass arrests and abuses in Xinjiang”, where the Uyghur minority is subjected to fierce repression, with re-education and labor camps. Bachelet’s visit was the first by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Asian country since 2005, which is why organizations and activists expected some gesture of criticism or condemnation of Beijing’s policy in this regard. But Bachelet disappointed.

Amnesty International (AI) reacted in similar terms. “The visit did not address crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” the Uyghur region. “The High Commissioner’s visit has been characterized by her photographs with high-ranking government officials and the state media’s manipulation of her statements, leaving the impression that she has directly engaged in a highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government. ”, said AI Secretary General Agnes Callamard, who was a space rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council and as such investigated the death of critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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