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Meet the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Michelle Bachelet

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Michelle Bachelet assumed her position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1 September 2018. Click here to read about how she was appointed to this important role

A Chilean citizen, Bachelet was born in 1951 in Santiago. She has a medical degree in surgery, with a specialisation in pediatrics and public health, and also studied military strategy at Chile's National Academy of Strategy and Policy and at the Inter-American Defense College in the US.

Like many others, her family was affected by the 1973 coup that saw Augusto Pinochet seize power from Salvador Allende. Her father, who had served under Allende, was arrested on charges of treason and died following months of torture. A member of the Socialist Youth, Bachelet was active in resistance efforts, working as a courier for the Socialist Party. In 1975, Bachelet and her mother were taken to a secret detention centre where they were interrogated.

She later said that her experience “was nothing in comparison to what others suffered”. “They put a hood over my head, threatened me and hit me. But I was spared the grill” - a reference to the regime's practice of strapping victims to a metal frame and subjecting them to electric shocks.

Bachelet managed to go into exile in Australia and subsequently moved to East Germany, before being authorised to return to Chile in 1979. After completing her medial degree, she worked for PIDEE, an NGO helping the children of the tortured and disappeared in Santiago. Following the country's transition to democracy in 1990, she worked for the Ministry of Health and the National AIDS Commission, and served as a consultant to the Pan-American Health Organization, the World Health Organization and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit.

In 1995, Bachelet joined the Socialist Party's Central Committee and was appointed Minister of Health in 2000 under President Ricardo Lagos. During this period, she oversaw the reduction of hospital waiting lists and authorised free distribution of the morning-after pill at state hospitals, which she framed as an issue of social justice. In 2002, she became Minister of National Defense – the first woman to hold this post in Latin America – and promoted reconciliation between the military and victims of the dictatorship.

In 2006, Bachelet won the presidency, becoming her country's first female president. Her first cabinet was gender balanced. She served until the end of her term in 2010 (the Chilean constitution stipulates a single term of office with no direct re-election), but was re-elected in 2014.

During her presidential tenures, Bachelet prioritised human rights, introducing legislation on equality, LGBT rights, reproductive rights and the minimum wage, alongside reforms to education and tax and an amnesty for undocumented migrants from other Latin American countries. She also established the National Institute for Human Rights and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality.

In 2011, Bachelet was appointed as the first Executive Director of UN Women – the newly created UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – where she stayed until announcing her second presidential run in 2013. She focussed, inter alia, on economic empowerment, tackling violence against women, and women's participation in security issues, including through Security Council Resolution 1325.

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General at the time, said Bachelet “was the right person in the right job at the right time” and that “her visionary leadership gave UN Women the dynamic start it needed. Her fearlessness in advocating for women’s rights raised the global profile of this key issue. Her drive and compassion enabled her to mobilise and make a difference for millions of peo-ple across the world”.

After finishing her second presidential term in 2018, Bachelet was named Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (LINK). As Co-Chair of the High-Level Steering Group for Every Woman Every Child, she launched Every Woman Every Child Latin America and the Caribbean.