Austria’s Volker Turk appointed next UN rights chief

Austria’s Volker Turk appointed next UN rights chief

The United Nations approved Austrian diplomat Volker Turk to be its new high commissioner for human rights, replacing former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in the sensitive, high-profile post.

The 57-year-old envoy has spent most of his career within the UN system, with a particular focus on refugees, and worked closely with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when the latter headed the global body’s refugee agency.

Turk, currently serving as assistant secretary general for policy, was tapped by Guterres on Wednesday and approved by the UN General Assembly by consensus on Thursday, to applause.

“Mr. Turk has devoted his long and distinguished career to advancing universal human rights, notably the international protection of some of the world’s most vulnerable people — refugees and stateless persons,” Guterres said in a statement.

“In my thirty-year long #UNHCR work with refugees, I have seen time and again the consequences of hate speech and its dehumanizing effect on people,” Turk wrote in July on Twitter. “Say #NoToHate is the only powerful answer.”

The UN veteran replaces Bachelet, who was appointed four years ago with the specific intent of having a powerful female politician in the role.

Guterres’s choice of a figure unknown to the wider public stands in contrast to his appointment of the high-profile Bachelet, who ended her tenure last week.

Turk will have his work cut out: Bachelet published a long-awaited report on rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region just minutes before the end of her term, leaving the tricky follow-up job to her successor.

The report urged Beijing to end “discriminatory” practices against Xinjiang’s Uyghur community and other Muslim-majority populations.

Detailing a string of rights violations including torture, forced labor and arbitrary detention, it brought the UN seal to many of the allegations long made by activist groups, Western nations and the Uyghur community in exile.

It said China may have carried out “crimes against humanity” but stopped short of calling Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs “genocide” — a term used since January 2021 by the United States and now embraced by parliaments in multiple Western nations.

China has vehemently rejected such charges and criticized Bachelet’s report, accusing the UN of becoming a “thug and accomplice of the US and the West.”

Prior to releasing the bombshell report, Bachelet had come under serious criticism over her approach to the situation in Xinjiang.

Rights groups have warned that her successor must show courage to call out abuses, regardless of the perpetrator.

“His voice in defense of the victims of human rights violations around the world will need to be loud and clear,” the head of Amnesty International, Agnes Callamard, said in a statement reacting to Turk’s expected approval.

“They count on him to stand up to human rights abusers even when they are powerful states.”

Tirana Hassan, interim executive director of Human Rights Watch, echoed the call.

“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,” she said.

For Bachelet’s successor, ISHR program director Sarah Brooks warned that “the stakes have never been higher.”

The organization and others have been heavily critical of the opaque nature of the appointment process. ISHR director Phil Lynch warned that this lack of transparency and consultation could come at a price.

“The secretary-general missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next high commissioner,” he said.

Lynch added, though, that his organization and others would “seek to work closely and collaboratively with the next high commissioner to protect human rights and to pursue accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”

The UN General Assembly created the OHCHR in December 1993. The resolution spelling out its mandate calls for the top job to rotate by geographic region, but the idea is not always respected as several Latin Americans have held the post.

Until now, the only regional group not to have held the top job is Eastern Europe, which includes Russia. (AFP)

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