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UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Discusses Global Crises at Harvard IOP

The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017.
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Lucy Lu, Contributing Writer

United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights and former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet spoke about her work to uphold fundamental human rights around the world at the Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum Friday.

Mathias Risse, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, moderated the event. He began the discussion by stressing the importance of Bachelet’s role in working to solve human rights crises, citing increasing xenophobia in Europe, refugees, and the state of religious freedom under authoritarian regimes as examples.

During her speech, Bachelet contextualized her work by focusing on how it relates to modern day trends, like the movement toward nationalism.

“It is precisely at this moment of growing complexity and interconnectedness that some leaders are turning away from cooperative solutions,” Bachelet said. “Nationalism is on the rise in our society, accompanied by outspoken racism, discrimination.”

She also discussed how digitalization impacts human rights violations, calling digital tools “extremely helpful to the human rights world” while also noting “a dark side to the digital landscape.”

Bachelet cited examples of data streams used to track and interrupt human trafficking as well as government surveillance tools to target and track political dissidents or marginalized groups like the BGLTQ community.

In his introduction, Risse recognized Bachelet’s work as the inaugural executive director of UN Women, a UN group founded in 2011 to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. He also spoke about her efforts to reach gender parity in the Chilean cabinet and equal pay legislation she championed.

Bachelet noted there is still a lot of work to be done in the gender equality sphere despite her accomplishment.

“Women continue to be poorer than men,” she said. “They have fewer opportunities, less access to basic services such as education, and a lot less freedom to make their own choices.”

After Bachelet and Risse finished their remarks, audience members asked Bachelet about what her office has done to address the migrant crisis or uphold Venezuelan migrants’ rights.

Bachelet said her office focuses on advocating on behalf of marginalized people to national governments but does not “impose” on them. She added that she believes there needs to be more evaluation of the root causes in the case of the Venezuela crisis.

“Humanity has always migrated,” she said. “No one wants to leave their home, the place they were born, where they were raised, or where their great-grandparents are buried. It is because of an extreme need.”

Attendee Emmet A. Halm ’23 said he enjoyed the event, though he acknowledged the limits of the work Bachelet’s office does.

“I thought some of the criticism of the UN’s actions in general toward Venezuela and Myanmar were pretty valid,” he said. “But I think she made a good point in that her job is separate from the politics of the UN.”

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