First of 2 parts

GENEVA: As you know, after four years as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, my mandate was to end this week, on August 31.

The world has changed fundamentally over the course of my mandate.

I would say the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ever-increasing effects of climate change, and the reverberating shocks of the food, fuel and finance crisis resulting from the war against Ukraine have been the three major issues.

Polarization within and among States has reached extraordinary levels and multilateralism is under pressure.

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Important protest movements occurred in every region of the world demanding an end to structural racism, respect for economic and social rights, and against corruption, governance deficits and abuse of power — in many instances accompanied by violence, threats and attacks against protesters and human rights defenders, and at some times against journalists.

Some led to real change in the country. In other cases, rather than listening to the voices of the people, governments responded by shrinking the space for debate and dissent.

Over the past few months — once the Covid situation allowed me to resume official country visits — I have been to Burkina Faso, Niger, Afghanistan, China, Bosnia, Peru and Bangladesh. I have been able to see firsthand the impact of climate change, armed conflict, the food-fuel-finance crisis, hateful rhetoric, systematic discrimination, and the human rights challenges around migration, among other issues.

The UN Human Rights Office has worked, in a myriad of ways, to help monitor, engage and advocate for the protection and promotion of human rights. As I have said before, at the UN, dialogue, engagement, cooperation, monitoring, reporting and public advocacy must all be part of our DNA.

We have worked to try to help bridge the gap between government and civil society, to support national implementation of human rights obligations and advise on reforms to bring laws and policies into compliance with international standards, to expand our presence in-country so we are in a better position to work closely with the people on the ground. We have spoken out in private and public on country-specific and broader issues. And we have seen some progress.

The recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UN General Assembly last month marked the culmination of many years of advocacy by civil society. I am proud of my office's support and strong backing of this movement throughout the course of my mandate.

The extreme weather events of the past few months have again driven home, powerfully, the existential need for urgent action to protect our planet for current and future generations. Meeting this need is the greatest human rights challenge of this era — and all States have an obligation to work together on this, and to walk the talk, to fully implement the right to a healthy environment.

The response to the triple planetary crisis of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss must be centered on human rights, including the rights to participation, access to information and justice, and addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental harms on the most marginalized and disadvantaged.

There has also been steady progress towards abolition of the death penalty — some 170 States have abolished or introduced a moratorium, in law or in practice, or suspended executions for more than 10 years. The Central African Republic, Chad, Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea are among those which have taken steps to fully abolish the death penalty.

Other States, including Liberia and Zambia, are also actively considering abolition. Malaysia announced that it will abolish the country's mandatory death penalty, including for drug-related offenses. As of today, 90 States have ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the key international treaty prohibiting the use of the death penalty.

Concerns remain, however, about the increased use or resumption of capital punishment in other countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Singapore, and others like China and Vietnam continue to classify data on its use as a state secret, limiting the possibility of scrutiny.

I have — from the beginning of my mandate — pushed for greater recognition of the indivisibility and interdependence of economic, social and cultural rights with civil and political rights. The effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have brought into stark focus this interdependence.

States must draw lessons from the pandemic and the current food-fuel-finance crisis by designing long-term measures to build better and stronger universal public health and social protection systems.

Social protection coverage must facilitate access to health care, protect people against poverty and ensure essential economic and social rights, including food, water, housing, health and education. I also call on States to adopt proactive measures, including food, agriculture and fuel subsidies, to mitigate the impact of the crises.

All of this needs to be designed with people as part of the solution, through investment in inclusive, safe and meaningful channels for debate and participation at all levels.

Governing is tough — I know because I have twice been president of my country, Chile. There are always many pressing demands, challenges and problems to address. But governing is about prioritizing — and human rights must always be a priority. In many situations my Office has been covering, there is a lack of political will to take the necessary steps to really tackle a situation head-on. Political will is key — and where there is a will, there is a way.

States often invoke their own particular context when faced with allegations of human rights violations and when called upon to take steps to address them. Context is indeed important — but context must never be used to justify human rights violations.

In many instances, sustained advocacy on key human rights issues, grounded in international human rights laws and standards, bears fruit. In Colombia this month, the incoming administration has pledged a shift in its approach to drug policy — from a punitive to a more social and public health approach.

By addressing one of the deep-rooted causes of violence in Colombia, this approach could be instrumental in better protecting the rights of peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and of people who use drugs, both in Colombia and globally.


(To be continued tomorrow, September 1)

Michelle Bachelet is the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This article is based on her address to reporters on August 25. She was elected president of Chile on two occasions (2006-2010 and 2014-2018). She was the first female president of Chile and served as health minister (2000-2002) as well as Chile's and Latin America's first female defense minister (2002-2004).