Volker Türk, an Austrian Diplomat, Takes U.N. Human Rights Post

GENEVA — A week after Michelle Bachelet stepped down as the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, the U.N. has approved Volker Türk, an Austrian who is a trusted adviser to the secretary general, to take on the notoriously challenging job.

The secretary general, António Guterres, forwarded the name of Mr. Türk late on Wednesday to the U.N. General Assembly, which approved the appointment without a vote on Thursday.

Mr. Türk, 57, is not widely known outside the United Nations, but he was seen as the front-runner in a field of 13 candidates interviewed in recent weeks for the role. Some candidates were seen as having stronger rights credentials, but Mr. Türk had the advantage of a longstanding relationship with Mr. Guterres.

When Mr. Guterres led the U.N. refugee agency between 2005 and 2015, Mr. Türk worked alongside him, rising to become assistant high commissioner for protection. And when Mr. Guterres moved to New York to lead the United Nations, Mr. Türk followed to join the secretary general’s executive office, where he has worked since 2019 as undersecretary general for policy.

Among the most visible challenges awaiting him in his new post is how to follow up on the blistering report Ms. Bachelet released minutes before departing last week on China’s mass detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in its far western region of Xinjiang. The report accused China of serious human rights violations and found that the country might have committed crimes against humanity in its crackdown in the region.

China angrily denounced the report as lies compiled by the United States and other Western “thugs.” But the report laid out in grim detail, often drawn from official Chinese policy documents, a string of atrocities including torture, sexual abuse, forced labor, arbitrary detention and suppression of religious and cultural practices.

The abuses detailed and the pressures China brought to bear on the United Nations’ human rights arm to try to block the report’s release underscore the scale of the threats to international human rights law and standards, experts said.

“In this troubled era, he needs to push back against the pushback we have seen against human rights,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. “Volker’s challenge is to elevate, legitimize, publicize and defend human rights for all. This is a daunting but ever-so-important responsibility and key to the U.N.’s credibility.”

Another challenge will be to convince international rights activists that he is up to the task. Rights organizations greeted news of his appointment politely, but with little enthusiasm, reflecting their deep misgivings about how he will balance the demands of a job that calls for trying to get governments to cooperate on practical steps to improve human rights and calling out powerful state violators.

Mr. Türk “should neither seek nor expect a honeymoon period from U.N. member states,” Tirana Hassan, the interim executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “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.”

Some diplomats and rights groups in Geneva are doubtful that Mr. Türk can be that advocate.

Mr. Türk said on Twitter that he was “deeply honored” by the appointment and would “give it my all.” He could not immediately be reached for comment.

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

He cited Mr. Türk’s work for the U.N. refugee agency in troubled countries like Kosovo, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But previous U.N. high commissioners for human rights have come to the job armed with political stature or distinguished legal careers. Ms. Bachelet had previously served as president of Chile. Her predecessor, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, had a distinguished diplomatic career behind him, and others before him included Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland.

Mr. Türk, a lawyer by training, has been closely involved in developing Mr. Guterres’s policy papers on approaches to human rights. But by appointing Mr. Türk, a little-known bureaucrat from his own office, the secretary general appears to have given priority to rewarding loyalty and installing the candidate he could best rely on to follow his lead, analysts say.

Human rights defenders have long viewed Mr. Guterres as reluctant to let the United Nations take a more robust approach to rights violations.

“That will not improve under a Guterres-Türk double act,” said Marc Limon, a former diplomat who leads a Geneva think tank on human rights policy.

“The balance will be towards a more cooperative and dialogue-focused approach to human rights,” he added. “That’s what Guterres is, what Bachelet was and Türk will be. It means an important part of the mandate of the high commissioner will receive less attention.”


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