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UN: New Rights Chief Should Speak Out for All Victims

Volker Türk Should Not Shy Away from Criticizing Powerful Governments

United Nations Headquarters building in Manhattan, New York City, on December 21, 2021. © 2021 Sergi Reboredo / VWPics via AP Images

(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general’s nominee for high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, should be a principled and outspoken advocate for all victims of abuses around the world, Human Rights Watch said today. It is crucial for the new UN high commissioner for human rights to be willing to call out powerful governments such as China, the United States, and their allies for serious rights violations.

On September 7, 2022, the UN announced Secretary-General António Guterres’ decision to appoint Türk, an Austrian national, to replace Michelle Bachelet, whose term as high commissioner ended on August 31. The appointment needs to be confirmed by the UN General Assembly, which is expected to happen later today.

“The new high commissioner will have his work cut out combating a difficult human rights environment across the globe,” said Tirana Hassan, interim executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Whether it’s confronting crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, war crimes in Ukraine and Ethiopia, or racism in the United States, the rights chief’s most effective tools are robust investigations and a strong voice.”

Türk has been UN under-secretary-general for policy in Guterres’ executive office since 2019. Previously, he was assistant high commissioner for protection in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

As the world’s chief public advocate for human rights, the high commissioner will have as his  primary source of leverage the pressure generated by investigations, public reporting, and public condemnations. Türk should be ready and willing to take on even the most powerful governments in a public way, and not expect back-room dialogue to bring change.

The new high commissioner will immediately need to follow up Bachelet’s detailed and powerful report on the Chinese government’s possible crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Türk should publicly advocate a UN Human Rights Council-mandated investigation in Xinjiang, which would be the Council’s first  formal  action on China, Human Rights Watch said.

Türk also needs to be prepared to publicly take on human rights issues in the United States and violations committed by US allies. A future US administration could even join the ranks of governments that treat human rights with disdain. A strong and vocal high commissioner in Geneva will be needed to protect the UN human rights system – wherever the source of the threat.

While UN high commissioners often give guidance to the UN Human Rights Council, they also have the authority to initiate human rights investigations themselves, without explicit mandates from UN bodies. The new high commissioner should make use of this investigatory power, which his predecessors often neglected.

The new high commissioner will most likely want to focus on increasingly prominent human rights issues such as those related to the climate crisis and digital technologies. It is crucial for violations in these areas to be forcefully addressed by publicly exposing the governments responsible.  This will also mean that the high commissioner should pay particular attention to the environmental activists, human rights defenders, and investigative journalists who are frequently the targets of abusive governments.

“The new UN high commissioner for human rights should neither seek nor expect a honeymoon period from UN member states,” Hassan said. “What’s needed by the millions of people around the world whose rights are being violated every day is an advocate in their corner who will take on abusive governments large and small without fear and without hesitation.”

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