Commencement Address by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet


Dear students and family members

Dear friends,

To be honest, It is an honor to be speaking at this happy occasion. What an exciting time, for you, for your families.

A moment to pause, as one chapter comes to a close.

I am honored to join you in this celebration of what you have achieved: the new friendships and connections you have made; the moments where perhaps you wondered if you would ever make it; and the knowledge and experience you have accumulated.

You have made a courageous choice by pursuing a future in international affairs. I don’t need to tell you how challenging things are in the world right now, how unpredictable, and daunting they can seem.

How difficult it is to bridge the gaps that seem to be growing between countries, and between people. How hard it is to reach agreement, wondering whether our efforts will ever effect real change.

And how confusing it must be to find your place in that turbulence.

As you pause at the opening of a new chapter today, I would like to celebrate those things that you – each of you, as part this cohort – can bring forward.

I would like to celebrate those skills, experience and knowledge that you can contribute not just to tackle the challenges we are already facing, but- at this critical time in history – to draw out a new way of working.

You have much more information available at your fingertips than my generation ever did. You may be familiar with these statistics: Each minute, over 500 new hours of video show up on YouTube. Around 95 million photos and videos are uploaded every day on Instagram, and over 300 billion emails are sent each day. Over 5 million tweets are made. The amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally is increasing exponentially, forecast to reach 181 zettabytes in 2025.

You are learning to navigate this deep sea of information, how to distill it, how to use your voice to react to it.

How information – and disinformation – shape ideas, laws and policies is one of the most critical challenges you will face.

And much of the debates and arguments, especially on social media, focus on where the truth is and who holds it.

But allow me to share an idea.

I invite you, rather than focusing on establishing what is “truthful” or who are the carriers of “truthful” messages, to commit to and participate in the broader project of restoring trust in institutions and in each other.

Disinformation is born and flourishes in a context of political disenchantment, and economic and social disparities.

Disinformation often thrives where there is little political participation, in environments that restrict free and pluralistic information, or the freedoms of association and of peaceful assembly.

So I invite you to use your skills to fight for the expansion of spaces for people to participate, in all their diversity. That question of how to transform participation so that it works for people, at all levels, from local to global, is a key question of the future. In Our Common Agenda, the UN Secretary-General has called for new initiatives to improve the ways of listening to people whom States and international institutions such as the UN are meant to serve.

We need your ideas. And your raised voices for truly inclusive and meaningful participation.

In the face of so much information and so much noise, I urge you to try not to get complacent or numb, or to take the right to participate, the freedom to express yourself, to associate with others, for granted.

You are also much more connected to other parts of the world than my generation ever was. And while online connections are vital and can provide so many opportunities, they should not replace real life connections, in your communities. Keep nourishing those bonds.

I am so thrilled to be able to deliver this speech in person, rather than behind a screen. I can see your faces, your reactions, I can tell better if you’d rather be somewhere else. And I can feel your energy, your drive and desire to go forward.

Be critical, be kind, and stay curious.

That is a very challenging quest. I cannot offer you a key that unlocks a safe and planned next-level experience. My life has been much messier and more turbulent than I could have imagined. Yours will be too.

My decision to lead a life of public service came to me gradually, in the midst of – and perhaps due to – that turbulence.

When I was 24, I had to flee my country. Many Chileans, including myself and my own family, were suffering the abuses of the military dictatorship: arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture, amongst others. My studies were interrupted, and I had no idea how long I would be gone.

For four years, I improvised. I went to Australia, then East Germany, learning new languages and continuing my medical training. There were of course moments when hope drains away and despair and anger flood in.

I returned to Chile when I was 28, married with a child, and a great yearning to contribute to the country I had longed for. I had a medical degree and worked in an NGO, which gave support to children whose parents had been killed, disappeared or tortured or imprisoned.

And yet, over time, and as democracy began to be restored, I learned to set aside my anger and to replace it with an approach focused on dialogue – on finding a common ground of understanding in which we could begin to resolve the divisions.

I have been guided by conviction. It may seem unlikely, but I have learned that within that dialogue, if I maintain a clear and determined grasp on principle, and advance in a constructive way, then perhaps I can make a difference.

So I can tell you that in times of crisis – when the future is worried and there don’t seem to be many good options – you will find that core values will ground you.

Regardless of the challenges you face, you will find that the choices you make are based on integrity, empathy and courage.

And if there’s one thing I hope we are all learning from COVID-19 and its socio-economic consequences, growing geo-political tensions, the climate crisis, migration, and rising conflict, it’s that we are not alone.

Our actions impact the other, and we need each other.

Justice and equality matter. Discrimination and injustice have far-reaching consequences.

By trying to understand others’ points of view;

By acting with integrity, to advance justice and human rights;

By seeking always to build on your love for, and connections to, other people and all forms of life;

By honoring the nature that doesn’t just surround you but that you are an intrinsic part of ;

By looking to build, and advance – rather than to destroy –

You will be shaping a life for yourself that holds steady to your principles.

When things are uncertain, or we are faced with threats to what we have become accustomed, the temptation may be to dig our heels even further in our positions, convinced that this is the only way to prevent things from going in the wrong direction or slipping away from us.

Rather, I invite you to do just the opposite – to take a step toward the other, even if to do so may feel uncomfortable or disloyal to what you believe.

I invite you to listen and to focus on what we all share. To try and de-polarize, on the basis of common ground.

We have the 2030 Agenda, which has been fully negotiated by every State in the world, which can eradicate extreme poverty and inequality, and include more people in the benefits of development.

And we have the Paris Agreement, signed in this very city. It is predicated on the understanding that climate change is a common concern of humankind.

Human dignity, equality and human rights are at the core of these measures.

The right to life, liberty and security of person. The right to education, health, food, shelter, clothing and social security. Freedom from any form of discrimination. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom from torture, and from unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention. The right to a fair trial.

These are the elements that build resilient societies – which are able to withstand and overcome threats, peacefully resolve disputes, and facilitate sustained progress in prosperity and well-being for all their members.

You know this is true. Because it has been true in your own lives – either because you have benefitted from life in peaceful and prosperous societies or because you have witnessed and lived the opposite.

It is the principles of human rights that build more stable, more peaceful and more adaptable societies.

With dialogue, cooperation, and respect, they are a detailed guide through the unpredictable challenges of future events. Whether they involve transformations of the digital landscape or the prospect of violence, human rights principles and law have been constructed to protect humanity from danger.

So in this celebration of your achievements, and I add my voice to the President’s – my congratulations.

I invite you to go forward with courage and kindness, armed with the conviction that a life built with the others in mind, grounded in our common humanity, is one truly worth fighting for.

Thank you and we need your voices and your strength in this fight for progress and for humanity.

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