UN Rights Chief to Haaretz: 'Israel Must Address Decades of Discrimination'

Rampant racism, violations of international law in conflict zones, the dangers of big tech – Michelle Bachelet, groundbreaking ex-president of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, weighs in on the world's crises in an interview with Haaretz

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Michele Bachelet, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, in Geneva last year.
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Geneva last year.Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters
Danel Lushi
Danel Lushi
Danel Lushi
Danel Lushi

If there is one person who meets the definition of a pioneer, Michelle Bachelet is definitely it. She is the first woman – and the only one so far – to serve as Chile’s president (she did so twice), and also the first female politician in the Latin American country to serve as defense minister. It is Bachelet, who in her youth experienced firsthand the iron fist of a regime that oppresses its citizens, who now heads one of the largest and most important human rights organizations in the world.

Bachelet’s father, Alberto, a general in the air force, was arrested in 1973 for his opposition to the coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende; he died of a heart attack after months of torture in prison the following year. At the time, Bachelet was a medical student. In 1975, she and her mother, archaeologist Ángela Jeria Gomez, were arrested by the secret police, and sent to a secret prison where they were interrogated and tortured.

After her release, Bachelet went into exile in Australia and in 1979, upon her return to her homeland, she completed her medical studies; she specialized in pediatrics, working for an organization that cared for mentally challenged children whose parents were victims of the military junta. After the ouster of Augusto Pinochet in 1990, she advanced through the corridors of power in Santiago and into the diplomatic arena.

Bachelet, 69, took office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2018, just two months after the Trump administration withdrew from the organization’s Human Rights Council, alleging “chronic bias against Israel” and other perceived failures. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Bachelet succeeded her predecessor, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, “at a time of grave consequence for human rights.”

In an extensive written interview with Haaretz, held at the height of the rights council’s recent three-week session in Geneva, Bachelet addresses allegations of war crimes during Israeli-Hamas fighting in the Gaza Strip in May; recounts her efforts to gain access to Xinjiang province in western China, where mountains of evidence have accumulated of systematic oppression of the local Uyghur minority; and discusses the threat posed by giant tech-companies to human rights around the world.

I would like to start with your latest report on systemic racism and policing. It found “striking similarities and patterns” across borders in cases of deaths of people of African descent at the hands of law enforcement officials. Do you believe there should be a multilateral approach for rooting out systemic racism?

Bachelet: “We found a strikingly consistent failure across countries – a failure to acknowledge and address racial bias, stereotypes and profiling, and a failure to see justice done. People of African descent are, across jurisdictions, often presumed to be guilty, with underlying harmful, degrading associations of Blackness with criminality. Families described to me the heartbreaking obstacles in accessing justice and of course, unsurprisingly, expressed a profound lack of trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

“We also see striking similarities in the profound and wide-ranging injustices that people of African descent face from early childhood, through school, in their living standards and access to adequate housing, health care, employment and political representation. We’ve looked at examples from some 60 countries, and examined more closely cases of lethal police operations in Brazil, Colombia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“Systemic racism requires a systemic response. I’ve called on States [i.e., UN Member States] to adopt a transformative agenda to uproot systemic racism. This means ending impunity and building trust with communities. You need to listen to those who stand up against racism. You need to confront past legacies – including the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism. You need to reimagine policing and reform the criminal justice system, which have consistently produced discriminatory outcomes for people of African descent.

A food distribution near the village of Baker, in the northern Tigray Region, Ethiopia, last week. 400,000 people in the area are suffering from hunger.Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS - AFP

“And indeed, given the profound and wide-ranging injustices across the world linked with systemic racism, there is a need for a comprehensive approach to the issue within States, but also a multilateral approach. We stand to learn a lot from the patchwork of initiatives in various States toward truth-seeking, reparations – including memorialization, acknowledgement, apologies and litigation. I called on the Human Rights Council – an inter-governmental body of States – to sustain its close engagement on these issues and to establish a time-bound mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement in all parts of the world.”

'We follow a rigorous methodology in carrying out our monitoring and assessment of the facts. In the occupied Palestinian territory we do this for all three authorities: Israel as the occupying power, the Palestinian Authority and the de facto authorities'

Bachelet noted that last week, the council passed a landmark resolution establishing what it calls an international independent expert mechanism, staffed by three experienced individuals, to further this agenda. “So indeed, a multilateral approach to rooting out systemic racism, with a focus on Africans and people of African descent. The council also mandated my office to continue to report on these issues and to take further action globally,” she adds. “We mustn’t let the momentum slip.”

Gaza boiling point

Racial tensions between Arabs and Jews – and law enforcement officials – have come to a boiling point on the streets of Israel amid the recent escalation in Gaza. How should the Israeli leadership address those racial tensions?

“The scenes that we saw in May – of racial tensions resulting in violence in Israel between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish Israelis – were deeply shocking and distressing. I was particularly alarmed by allegations of unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by the police against Palestinian demonstrators, and the reported failure of the police to effectively protect Palestinian citizens of Israel from mob violence. In contrast, where Palestinian citizens engaged in violence against Jewish Israelis, the police were often quick to react. It is essential that the State protects all its residents and citizens without any discrimination based on notions of ‘nationhood,’ religious or ethnic origin, and ensures equal treatment before the law.”

“Law enforcement officers should protect demonstrators, bystanders, observers, medical personnel and journalists from discriminatory abuse and attacks.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, delivers her speech during a special session of to discuss situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in May.Credit: Martial Trezzini,AP

“The UN Human Rights Committee – which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a key human rights treaty which Israel has accepted – has made it clear that any limits on peaceful protests should be content-neutral and not based on the identity of participants or their relationship with the authorities.

“I was also concerned by the mass arrests of Palestinians from the Arab minority, including those taking part in the demonstrations. Indiscriminate mass arrests before, during or after a protest are arbitrary and thus unlawful.

“To regain and foster trust, it is imperative that, in the short term, the Israeli leadership demonstrates its commitment to equality by condemning all acts of violence, by whomever committed, and pursuing a transparent investigation of all incidents of alleged excessive use of force against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the context of the May 2021 riots. Reports that police stood by or even assisted those carrying out violence must also be investigated.

'We found a strikingly consistent failure across countries – a failure to acknowledge and address racial bias, stereotypes and profiling, and a failure to see justice done'

“In the longer term, the Israeli leadership needs to commit to addressing decades-long exclusion and discrimination, including the segregation between Arabs and Jews, and lack of equal treatment in terms of rights and privileges. This will involve repealing laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, with regard to their civil status, legal protection, access to social and economic benefits and rights to land and property. As always, we are ready to assist.”

In May, you told the UN council that the deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Hamas has violated international law by firing rockets into Israel. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the council’s decision to launch an investigation into possible war crimes “obsessed” and “a mockery of international law.” What is your response? Have you received any credible evidence of war crimes committed by Israel or by Hamas?

“On the investigation mandated by the Human Rights Council into May’s escalation, this was a decision by UN Member States in the council, and the investigation is mandated to be independent – separate from my mandate.

“It is clear that the violence in May was the most significant escalation in hostilities since 2014, and the latest in a string of armed confrontations between Israel and armed groups in Gaza. Each time there is appalling loss of life. Each time there are people seriously injured. And each time there is widespread destruction.

“The law of armed conflict is clear. Everything feasible must be done to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Time and time again we see civilians, particularly those in Gaza but not only there, bearing the brunt of these escalations. Monitoring by my office indicated that at least 129 civilians were killed – and of these, 66 were children. There was also enormous damage to civilian infrastructure, including courts, police stations, hospitals, several high-rise buildings, power and utility networks, and roads.

A home in the southern Israeli city Ashkelon that was hit by a Hamas rocker, in May.Credit: AMIR COHEN/Reuters

“On whether the actions of either side constitute war crimes, let me explain first that my office does not conduct criminal investigations. What we do is assess the facts and make an assessment of their compliance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The ultimate determination of whether a war crime was committed by a particular person with regards to a specific incident must be made in a court of law.

“On the firing of large numbers of indiscriminate rockets by Palestinian armed groups into Israel, including densely populated areas: Based on our assessment of the facts on the ground, as I and my predecessors have said time and again, this clearly violates international humanitarian law. Put simply, individuals deliberately employing inherently indiscriminate weapons in conflict are committing war crimes – just who is guilty is for a court to determine.

“Israel’s intense air strikes and shelling from land and sea on Gaza, although reportedly targeting members of armed groups and their military infrastructure, resulted in extensive civilian deaths and injuries, as well as large-scale destruction and damage to civilian objects. International humanitarian law is also clear in this regard – an object has to make an effective contribution to military action and its destruction must represent a definite military advantage if it is to be targeted. If found to be indiscriminate or disproportionate in their impact on civilians and civilian objects, such attacks may also constitute war crimes.

'There are also continued, horrific account of sexual and gender-based violence, against children as well as adults in Tigray'

“And while it can be a violation of international humanitarian law to locate military assets in densely populated civilian areas or to launch attacks from them, the actions of one party do not absolve the other from its obligations under international law.

“We follow a rigorous methodology in carrying out our monitoring and assessment of the facts on the ground. We collect information, interview witnesses, secure medical records and ensure that any information we put out is carefully assessed, corroborated or verified. In the occupied Palestinian territory we do this for all three authorities: Israel as the occupying power, the Palestinian Authority and the de facto authorities, Hamas, in Gaza as well as armed groups operating in Gaza.”

An anti-Israel bias?

It is important to dwell on the intricate system that is the United Nations: Bachelet’s office is subordinate to the UN Secretariat, and it provides advice and support to various human rights bodies, as well as to local governments and civil society organizations that promote human rights. The commissioner has a mandate to investigate and publish reports detailing the situation of human rights around the world. Separate from her office is the Human Rights Council, which reports to the General Assembly, rendering it a political body by nature. One of the more controversial items the council discusses at its periodic meetings is “Agenda Item 7,” the sole item among 10 that obligates the council regularly to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in detail.

One of the most repeated criticisms within Israel is that the council is a frequent critic of Israeli policy and even has an anti-Israel bias. Do you agree with this claim?

“The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body that has addressed dozens of country situations since it began meeting 15 years ago. Taking its most recent session which ended on July 14, for example: Reports on 35 countries were presented, including one on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory. The council adopted 28 draft resolutions on thematic human rights issues and country-specific ones on Syria, Myanmar, Belarus, Ukraine, Eritrea and Ethiopia.”

Michelle Bachelet speaks during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, last year.Credit: Martial Trezzini,AP

“Item 7” is a controversial feature on the council’s agenda, as it is the only item that is dedicated to a specific regional conflict. Perhaps it amplifies the conflict in a disproportional way?

“Regarding how the Human Rights Council conducts its work and decides its agenda, this is a matter decided by the States themselves. In all instances, I have urged council members and all those participating in its meetings to do their utmost to depoliticize discussions to the extent possible and work constructively when addressing human rights situations in all countries across the globe, using consistent, objective criteria of assessment – including in relation to the serious, persistent human rights issues in the occupied Palestinian territory. Ultimately, what is needed in respect of crisis situations of human rights violations, wherever they occur, is more accountability, not less.”

Other crisis zones

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, however, just one of a series of struggles and conflicts that have plagued Bachelet. This month, the United Nations estimated that more than 400,000 people in the area of fighting in northern Ethiopia are suffering from hunger, and there have been reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law. At the same time, Beijing is frustrating attempts to report on the situation in China’s Xinjiang province, where authorities oppress the Uyghur minority, and no solution to the political crisis in Myanmar is on the horizon.

'Social media companies have considerable power over our ‘public square,’ as people across the globe increasingly use online tools managed by private platforms to get and share information'

The ongoing dire situation in Tigray – you said last month that a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission should conclude by August. What findings are expected to be in this report?

“The work is still ongoing and the findings and conclusions of the joint investigation should be released in September. We are working toward a report that will analyze key incidents and emblematic cases, focusing on a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict. The work is being done following careful analysis of the credibility of the information we receive through our research, interviews and our own observations of the situation on the ground. It was particularly important for us to conduct such independent assessments given the finger-pointing and blanket denials of human rights violations and abuses by multiple actors in the conflict.

“The work has been challenging as many of the violations are ongoing and there is active fighting in some areas. I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and forced displacement. There are also continued, horrific account of sexual and gender-based violence, against children as well as adults. The Ethiopian authorities have announced investigations into some 60 cases of sexual violence – this is important and it is also crucial that they take swift measures to prevent further violence.”

Bachelet added that she is very concerned over the fact that humanitarian workers in Ethiopia are being targeted. She noted the “outrageous, brutal murder” in late June of three members of the international Médecins Sans Frontières organization, which has brought to the fore just how dangerous the situation is on the ground. She has urged the Ethiopian government to investigate the incident.

You said there are credible reports that Eritrean soldiers were still operating in Tigray, violating human rights and humanitarian law. Have you raised these concerns with the Ethiopian government?

A Palestinian man looks at the destruction of a building hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, in May this year.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

“I have raised these and other concerns directly with the Ethiopian authorities, including with the prime minister and the attorney general of Ethiopia. My office has also raised concerns with the government of Eritrea regarding the presence and conduct of Eritrean soldiers, without response. The Human Rights Council has also called for the rapid withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray.”

Regarding the situation in western China – you have sought access to Xinjiang province, so far unsuccessfully. Are you in contact with the Chinese authorities? What are the options in the event that they will continue to refuse to grant access to the area?

“Yes, we have been in discussions with the Chinese authorities regarding a visit and we continue to request meaningful access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, among other areas. We are discussing this visit with the authorities in line with our standard practice and requirements for such visits, to enable us to properly assess the human rights situation in light of the serious allegations that have arisen with respect to the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. Obviously I would prefer to get a firsthand assessment on the ground, but we are looking at all the available options to gather accurate information. We also want to engage the authorities to look at practical solutions to ensuring that people’s rights are upheld, and prevent violations occurring.”

Power over 'public square'

On a different subject. Big tech companies seem to be emerging as new actors in human rights discourse, with concerns about privacy, censorship and other abuses. How can we make sure their platforms won’t become a common tool for human rights violations?

“Social media companies have considerable power over our ‘public square,’ as people across the globe increasingly use online tools managed by private platforms to get and share information, participate in debates and mobilize others. That means one of our core rights – the freedom to hold, express and share opinions – is now managed by businesses, whose ultimate interest is profit. Under the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, businesses have the responsibility not to violate rights – and also the responsibility to prevent human rights violations.

“With regard specifically to social media platforms, my office is working on a number of key asks from a human rights point of view. We need a transparent framework based on international human rights law for how content is moderated. Otherwise we are left with biased censorship behind closed doors.

“There needs to be transparency and consistency in how governments’ requests regarding content and privacy are handled. If content is taken down, is it because of the platform’s internal rules or because a government requested it? There need to be inclusive debates involving voices from around the world when technology and software are designed.”

“But of course States have the primary responsibility to protect human rights. They have a key role to play in putting in place the guardrails around companies’ actions, including through smart regulation that focuses on transparency and accountability, while avoiding content-based approaches that could limit freedom of expression.”

Danel Lushi is deputy global affairs editor at Haaretz.

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