Who Should be the Next UN Leader? – PART 6



Credit: United Nations
  • Opinion by Felix Dodds, Chris Spence (apex, north carolina / dublin, ireland)
  • Inter Press Service
  • With current UN Secretary-General António Guterres set to step down in 2026, who is in the running to replace him? In this seven-part series, Felix Dodds and Chris Spence reveal who might be nominated and assess their chances.

    The potential candidates include Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), Mia Motley (Barbados), Alicia Barcena (Mexico), Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). These are names that have come up in conversations with UN insiders and other experts. All six would offer skills and experiences we believe would be valuable in these fast-paced, uncertain times.

“Violence against women in all its forms is a human rights violation. It’s not something that any culture, religion or tradition propagates.”

Bachelet lived in exile in Australia and Germany during the early part of Augusto Pinochet’s period as dictator, although not before being tortured by Pinochet’s secret police. She studied medicine and, on returning to Chile several years later, began to campaign for restoring democracy.

In 2000, she was appointed as Minister of Health by then-President Ricardo Lagos, introducing several major reforms and reducing hospital waiting lists. In 2002, she was appointed Minister of National Defense—a first for a woman in any country in the region.

Among various reforms, she strove to position the military so it would never be involved in subverting democracy, while also seeking reconciliation between the armed forces and the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

In her first term as President (2006-2010), Bachelet introduced a range of reforms, including strengthening social security systems to offer more support for children and the elderly. She also appointed a cabinet with equal representation of men and women, and supported legislation to legalize gay marriage and promote women’s reproductive rights.

After her first term as President, Bachelet took a senior role at the UN. In 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that Bachelet would become the first executive director of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Also known as UN Women, the new entity was the result of a merger of several previous UN groups. UN Women’s role is to advocate for the rights of women and girls and address specific issues such as violence against women and LGBT people. Bachelet held this position from 2010-2013.

Returning to Chilean politics, in late 2013 Bachelet was elected President of Chile for a second term. Again, Bachelet focused on strengthening human rights and supporting vulnerable communities, as well as promoting environmental protections.

Some policies—such as an attempt to introduce free education to a large number of poorer students—caused controversy and opposition—although some progress was still ultimately achieved.

In 2018, Bachelet returned to the UN. Perhaps appropriately considering her focus as President, she was appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, serving from 2018 to 2022. Bachelet spoke out strongly during this time on a number issues, from alleged human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, to the situation in the Nagomo-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the detainment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in China, and the situation in Yemen.

Assessing Bachelet’s Prospects

Could Michelle Bachelet become the next UN Secretary-General? Here is our assessment of her advantages and disadvantages, should she choose to enter her name into the contest.


  • Seniority: Bachelet has held the top job in Chile not once, but twice. Not only that, but she has also held two senior roles within the UN. Her experience has been at the highest level, and her networks are impressive. It is hard to imagine someone with a more appropriate mix of expertise.
  • UN Credentials: As a former head of both UN Women and the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Bachelet’s insider knowledge is considerable. She would know how to navigate the organization effectively from her first day in the job.
  • A Female Leader: As with other candidates featured in these articles, Michelle Bachelet would be a strong candidate to break the glass ceiling and become the first female leader of the UN.
  • A Latina Leader: With the tradition that the UN Secretary-General is chosen by rotating through the various UN regions, Bachelet would likely satisfy those who believe it is Latin America and the Caribbean’s “turn” to nominate Guterres’ successor.
  • Proven Impact: There are few potential candidates who could point to such broad impact both as a national leader and during two separate stints in high-level UN roles, especially in the fields of human rights and supporting vulnerable populations. Given the unprecedented uncertainty swirling around international diplomacy these days, a figure with a reputation as a “doer” may be welcomed.


  • A Threat to the Big Five? Like Mia Mottley of Barbados, Bachelet has made comments in the past, particularly during her time as the UN High Commissioner Human Rights, that may not have been welcomed by some UN member states. It is worth bearing in mind that whoever emerges as Guterres’ successor will need to convince all five permanent Security Council members—China, Russia, France, the US, and UK—that they are the best person for the job. It will be a difficult line for anyone to walk, especially when even a single veto could scuttle their hopes.

    In spite of Bachelet’s obvious credentials, if just one of the “Big Five” members of the Security Council show signs of sensitivity to her comments on human rights in the past, Bachelet may have her work cut out to change their point of view. Still, her credentials are impressive and even opponents might have a hard time making a case against her.

Prof. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have participated in United Nations conferences and negotiations since the 1990s. They co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022), which examines the roles of individuals in inspiring change.

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