Last of 2 parts

MY office has been advocating — globally — for a human rights-based approach on drug policy, and is ready to assist.

The worldwide mobilization of people for racial justice, notably in 2020, has forced a long-delayed reckoning with racial discrimination and shifted the debate toward a focus on systemic racism and the institutions that perpetrate it.

I call on all States to seize this moment to achieve a turning point for racial equality and justice. My office is working on its second report to the UN Human Rights Council on this issue, to be presented next month.

I have always sought — even on the most challenging issues — to encourage dialogue, to open the door for further exchanges. This means listening as well as speaking, keeping our eyes and ears to the context, identifying entry points and roadblocks, and trying to build trust incrementally, even when it seems unlikely.

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Courageous defenders

During my four years as high commissioner, I had the privilege of speaking to so many courageous, spirited, extraordinary human rights defenders:

The brave, indomitable women human rights defenders in Afghanistan;

The determined mothers of the disappeared in Mexico;

The inspirational staff working at a health center in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, serving victims of sexual violence;

The wisdom and strength of Indigenous peoples in Peru, who are on the frontlines of the impact of climate change, illegal mining and logging, and defend their rights in the face of serious risks;

And the empathy and generosity of communities hosting internally displaced people in Burkina Faso.

I found allies in traditional village leaders in Niger, who were working in their own ways to advance human rights in their communities; I met young people from Malaysia, Sweden, Australia, Costa Rica and elsewhere whose resourcefulness, creativity and ambition was palpable;

I shared the pain of the father in Venezuela who showed me the sports medals his teenage son had won, before he was killed during protests in 2017;

And I shared the tears of the mother I met in Srebrenica who carried the hope that 27 years after her son disappeared, she will one day find his remains and lay him to rest next to his father's grave.

Last week, I spoke with Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.

The Rohingya

One teacher I met told me he had earned distinctions in all his classes at school in Myanmar and had dreamed of becoming a doctor. Instead, he has spent the past five years in a refugee camp, having had to flee his country — because he is Rohingya. "I still cry at night sometimes when I remember my dream," he told me, adding that "my Buddhist friends are now doctors in Myanmar."

My own experience as a refugee was much more comfortable, with the means to continue my education and with a good standard of living — but the yearning for one's homeland, the desire of so many of the Rohingya to return home resonated deeply with me. Sadly, the conditions needed for them to be able to return to their homes in a voluntary, dignified and sustainable way are not there yet.

Today marks five years since more than 700,000 Rohingya women, children and men were forced to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh — and Myanmar's human rights catastrophe continues to worsen, with the military (the Tatmadaw) maintaining military operations in Kayah and Kayin in the southeast, Chin state in the northwest, and Sagaing and Magway regions in the Bamar heartland.

The use of air power and artillery against villages and residential areas has intensified. Recent spikes in violence in Rakhine state also seemed to indicate that the last fairly stable area of the country may not avoid a resurgence of armed conflict. Rohingya communities have frequently been caught between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army fighters or have been targeted directly in operations. Over 14 million need humanitarian assistance.

We continue to document gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law on a daily basis, including repression against protesters and attacks against civilians that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

I urge the international community to intensify pressure on the military to stop its campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar, to insist on prompt restoration of civilian rule, and accountability for violations committed by security forces.

Ukraine's ordeal

Yesterday (August 24) marked six months since Russia's armed attack on Ukraine began. Six unimaginably terrifying months for the people of Ukraine, 6.8 million of whom have had to flee their country. Millions of others have been internally displaced. We have documented at least 5,587 civilians killed and 7,890 injured. Of these casualties, nearly 1,000 are children.

Six months on, the fighting continues, amid almost unthinkable risks posed to civilians and the environment as hostilities are conducted close to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

I call on the Russian president to halt the armed attack against Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia plant needs to be immediately demilitarized.

Both parties must respect, at all times and in all circumstances, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

The international community must insist on accountability for the many serious violations documented, some of which may amount to war crimes.

I am alarmed by the resumption of hostilities in northern Ethiopia. Civilians have suffered enough — and this will only exacerbate the suffering of civilians already in desperate need. I implore the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People's Liberation Front to work to de-escalate the situation and immediately cease hostilities.

I also urge a renewed focus by the international community on protracted — often forgotten — crises including the situation in Yemen, Syria, the Sahel and Haiti.

And I urge continued support for the UN Human Rights Office, the UN human rights treaty bodies, and the UN Special Procedures mechanism, all of which work tirelessly in defense of international human rights laws and standards.

The journey to defend human rights never ends — and vigilance against the rollback of rights is vital. I honor all those who, in their own ways, are working to defend human rights. As a woman and a lifelong feminist, I want to pay particular tribute to women human rights defenders, who have been at the forefront of social movements that have benefited all of us. They have often been the ones bringing to the table the unheard voices of the most vulnerable. I will continue to stand with you as I return home to Chile.

To end, I would like to thank you journalists, based here in Geneva and across the globe, for the indispensable work that you do. When we in the UN Human Rights Office raise the alarm, it is crucial that it rings loudly, and this is only possible when the world's media gets the stories out there.


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 twice (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).