Michelle Bachelet came to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights with an impressive political and personal résumé. Her father, Chilean Air Force Gen. Alberto Bachelet, was arrested by the notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet, and was tortured and died behind bars for opposing the coup that brought an end to the presidency of Salvador Allende. Bachelet and her mother were also arrested when she was 23, and endured torture herself at the hands of the regime.
Returning from exile, she rose to the top of the Socialist Party in Chile and positioned herself as a key member of a coalition that governed the country for almost two decades after the end of the Pinochet era. She became president in 2006, implementing in her first term a basic pension that benefitted the country’s poorest population. She also introduced public contraception and improved infrastructure. A signature landmark of her first term as president was the opening of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which documented the extensive human rights abuses committed during the 16 years of the Pinochet dictatorship. After a stint as the first executive director of U.N. Women, which was established in 2010, she returned to Chile to serve a second term as president.
Bachelet’s nomination and selection as the successor to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan was widely praised. Her life experience of standing up to dictators was warmly welcomed, particularly in the eras of U.S. President Donald Trump, who later cut funding to her office; President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who openly mocked her and praised Pinochet; and Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose repressive policies toward Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region in northwest China would come to define Bachelet’s legacy.
During China’s 2017 Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), human rights organizations were alarmed at the revelations of the abuses being carried out in Xinjiang. The following year, at the 39th Session of the UNHRC, Bachelet’s first in the position, she acknowledged China’s deteriorating human rights record, calling the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s review of arbitrary detentions of Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps “deeply disturbing.” In addition to requesting U.N. access to all regions of China, she made it known she would be engaging the Chinese on this specific issue.
Unfortunately for Bachelet, the initial resolve expressed in her opening statement in Geneva that September would mark the beginning of a four-year fall from grace, one that would permanently damage her reputation and tarnish the office.
At first, she called upon China to accept U.N. observers in the Xinjiang region; predictably, those calls fell on deaf ears. However, as human rights groups, researchers, and civil society organizations began releasing damning reports on the deteriorating conditions in Xinjiang, Bachelet, for long periods of time, fell silent, angering civil society groups. For example, the U.S. think tank the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy reported that the Chinese government had repeatedly violated the Genocide Convention in its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. The number of reports by an assortment of groups has grown, accusing China of forced sterilization, mass surveillance, and mass detainment in re-education camps, as well as the broader accusation of cultural genocide. Even more worrisome is that Xi Jinping has been directly linked to these abusive policies.
Perhaps Bachelet bought into the quiet diplomacy of U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has also stayed largely silent amid the chorus of groups calling for the world body to take immediate action. Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, has been repeatedly criticized for his sensitive negotiations with the Chinese, who contribute increasingly significant sums to the U.N. and whose influence within the body have grown exponentially. Together, Bachelet and Guterres remained silent when alternative courses of action were recommended, such as the appointment of a Special Rapporteur, a U.N. special envoy (as proposed by former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression David Kaye, among others), or the selection of a panel of experts appointed by the UNHRC.
But nothing would separate Bachelet from her predecessors, Al Hussein of Jordan and Navi Pillay of South Africa, more than her poorly planned trip to China and her failure to publish a long-awaited report on Chinese abuses of the Uyghur population. First, she failed to learn from Vladimir Voronkov, the under-secretary-general for counterterrorism, who in 2019 visited China over the course of three days and embarrassed himself by failing to mention the millions of Uyghur Muslims in his press release. Worse, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that Voronkov and local officials had reached a consensus on China’s counterterrorism efforts. His trip had long worried the United States, which suggested that Voronkov’s visit would legitimize China’s counterterrorism strategy.
Likewise, Bachelet played into Chinese hands by being surprisingly attentive to Xi Jinping’s propaganda efforts, listening to him lecture her on human rights, when he said there was “no need for ‘preachers’ to boss [China] around” or “interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.” She was photographed with a copy of Xi’s new book, inappropriately titled “Xi Jinping’s Excerpts on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights.” Her planned trip, under close scrutiny by international observers, was a catastrophe that furthered China’s propaganda aims and subordinated her office to the demands of her Chinese hosts. Bachelet even used Chinese terminology, describing internment camps as educational and vocational training centers. There was little evidence to support the idea her trip was in any way independent or critical, as Bachelet readily admitted she did not visit any prison in Xinjiang where so many accused of alleged terrorism or political crimes are held. She was also not free to speak candidly with the Uyghur population.
Her recent trip came at a time of growing Chinese influence over the United Nations. As The Diplomat reported in 2020, China has held the position of under-secretary-general for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs since 2007, giving it the opportunity to reshape ideas of development in line with its own interests. Beijing has lobbied countries from within the U.N. system to support its strategic interests, including that of Taiwan, and has made strides to take greater control over U.N. agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization. Through her trip, Bachelet only strengthened the Chinese position by giving testimony to the idea that Beijing was both open and transparent in hosting her, and left the possibility of a repeat trip by a future U.N. human rights chief almost out of the question.
Bachelet’s failure to hold China accountable this past May left her office only one chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the international community. It became incumbent upon the office to finally release the long-awaited report on Xinjiang that it has promised for years, one that China has intensely lobbied to block. But again, Bachelet signaled that the report was delayed, possibly indefinitely. She responded by noting that her Office was under “tremendous pressure” to publish the report and to withhold it, as well as suggesting that the report had been written without “substantial input” from China. In discussing that internal and external pressure, Bachelet created a false equivalence between Chinese pressure not to publish and those who have been urging her office to release the report before the expiry of her term.
With the human rights community around the world waiting, Bachelet eventually released her report on Xinjiang with just minutes to spare, but it wasn’t enough to salvage her legacy. Several observers were left wondering what was happening in her office in those last minutes. How much consideration was given to Chinese inputs into the report? Would the report contain guarded language? The good news is that the report explicitly states that China’s “arbitrary detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups… may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” And, associated with the responsibilities of her office, the report will generate significant criticism from Beijing.
The lingering questions that will cloud Bachelet’s legacy will arise from the last-minute, high-drama approach to the report’s release. It was highly irregular and partially unprofessional. As observers pore over the text of the report, Bachelet will no longer be around to address questions. Her office will be underpowered and under-resourced to cope with its consequences. In the end, it felt as if Bachelet released the report and ran.
Victims of human rights abuses and human rights defenders both need an advocate who will actively fight on their behalf. As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch put it in a recent interview with Reuters, no one listens to a “quiet diplomat.” In fact, Bachelet was mainly silent over the course of her four years as high commissioner. That’s the epitaph permanently etched into her legacy. Her successor must not repeat her mistakes.
Editor’s note: This article was initially published just prior to the release of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights’ report on the situation in China’s Xinjiang region. It has since been amended to account for the content of the report.