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Key Takeaways From the New U.N. Human Rights Chief's First Public Speech

Michelle Bachelet's bold speech condemned the Trump administration's family separation policy along with other human rights abuses.
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New High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the opening day of the 39th U.N. Council of Human Rights in Geneva on September 10, 2018.

New High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends the opening day of the 39th U.N. Council of Human Rights in Geneva on September 10, 2018.

The United Nations' new high commissioner for human rights took to the microphone on Monday to deliver her first speech to the body's Human Rights Council. Michelle Bachelet's speech was passionate and aspirational—but also specific. She named explicit instances of abuses that have led the world into what she called "a time of many setbacks for human rights." Bachelet also called for the U.N. and other institutions to adopt specific policies to stem the suffering caused by multiple ongoing human rights crises.

Here are five key takeaways from her speech. 

1. "I have been a political detainee and the daughter of political detainees; I have been a refugee and a physician—including for children who experienced torture and the enforced disappearance of their parents."

Describing her own background, the new human rights chief aligned herself with the world's current refugees and political prisoners. Bachelet, who served as Chile's first female president, experienced detention and torture during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. Her father—a political appointee in the democratically elected government that Pinochet overthrew (with the United States Central Intelligence Agency's support)—was tortured daily until he died of cardiac arrest. Bachelet was separated from her mother, imprisoned, and also interrogated and tortured. She was eventually able to flee to exile in Australia. With her own personal history as subtext, Bachelet's personal investment in her new role was clear throughout her speech.

2. "Erecting walls; deliberately projecting fear and anger on migrant communities; denying migrants fundamental rights by limiting the right to appeal; curtailing the right to non-refoulement, separating and detaining families and cutting integration programs: Such policies offer no long-term solutions to anyone, only more hostility, misery, suffering, and chaos."

While Bachelet's speech condemned multiple Western countries' hostility to migrants and refugees, she specifically criticized U.S. President Donald Trump in her speech, calling his administration's family separation policy "unconscionable." The Trump administration's short-lived policy of separating migrant children from their families has already drawn censure from the U.N., but Bachelet went further and named other instances of migrant abuse, including "non-refoulement," wherein refugees and asylum seekers are forced to return to danger in the regions they fled, and a limitation of the "right to appeal," under which migrants are deported without due process. She also went on to criticize the lack of "redress" for the migrant families separated by the U.S.

3. "It is in the interest of every state to adopt migration policies that are grounded in reality, not in panic, which provide opportunities for safe, regular movement instead of forcing people to take lethal risk."

Bachelet did not shy away from explicitly condemning the actions of several U.N. member states. She criticized Italy's decision to deny entry to non-governmental organization ships carrying rescued migrants whose boats sank while they were attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa. "Italy's decision to close its sea ports, denying entry to [non-governmental organization] rescue ships, had serious consequences on the most vulnerable," Bachelet said in her speech. Bachelet also announced her intention to send U.N. teams to Italy and Austria to monitor the "alarming escalation of attacks" against migrants and Roma people. Italy's notoriously anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini countered on Monday, saying, "We do not accept lessons from anyone, let alone from the U.N."

4. "I am deeply concerned about the impending crisis in Idlib in Syria. The suffering of the people of Syria has been interminable and terrible, and I urge all nations to take all necessary action to urgently ensure their protection, as well as justice for the massive human rights violation that they have endured."

As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, it will continue to present one of the most pressing human rights crises to Bachelet and the rest of the Human Rights Council. By referring to the Idlib province of Syria, Bachelet brought attention to a battle that might cause a new refugee crisis. Joint Syrian-Russian airstrikes against one of Syria's last rebel strongholds has endangered Idlib's three million civilians. As the conflict worsens, early reports have found that over 30,000 have already been internally displaced.

5. "The Global Compact for Migration, which is due to be adopted in December, offers hope for better and more effective governance of migration. It is a balanced human rights document with achievable, detailed policies to reduce the vulnerability of many of the world's 258 million migrants...."

Bachelet expressed hope for the Global Compact for Migration. The compact is the first of its kind: an international document, worked on by multiple governments, that offers a roadmap for international migration. Though the document is not legally binding, U.N. member states have worked together to create the compact over the last two years. When the document is adopted in December, it will provide Bachelet and her office a baseline for evaluating how states ought to treat migrants.