BERLIN – The U.N. General Assembly on Thursday approved a veteran Austrian diplomat to be the global body's human rights chief and its advocate for adherence to universal rights at a time when the office is under harsh criticism from China for accusing Beijing of abusing Muslim minorities.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres nominated Volker Türk, his top policy chief, late Wednesday and the 193-member assembly quickly approved the appointment by consensus with a bang of the gavel by its acting president, which was followed by a burst of applause.
Türk will replace Michelle Bachelet of Chile as high commissioner for human rights, based in Geneva.
Bachelet’s four-year term ended on Aug. 31 with the last-minute release of her highly critical report on China’s detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang, which she said may constitute crimes against humanity.
China blasted the report, accusing the U.N. rights office of fabrication and allowing itself to be used by Western nations.
Tuerk can also expect to face pressure from human rights activists.
Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard, said he is being appointed “at a time of considerable threats to human rights around the world.”
“Immediately, he has to help shape an effective human rights response and accountability for Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, China’s persecution of millions of Uyghurs, and far too many forgotten crises,” she said in a statement, pointing to Yemen, Congo and Myanmar as examples. “His agenda should also include strengthening the human rights response to climate change and rising inequality.”
Türk, who holds a doctorate in international law from the University of Vienna, worked for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees around the world, including in Malaysia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo and Kuwait, before serving in key positions at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. From 2015 to 2019 he was assistant high commissioner for protection where he focused on developing the Global Compact on Refugees.
From 2019 until January 2022, Türk served as assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination in Guterres’ office. The U.N. chief then appointed him as undersecretary-general for policy in his executive office.
This year, Türk has been focusing on the follow-up to Guterres’ September 2021 report called “Our Common Agenda” outlining his vision for the “breakthrough scenario” to a greener and safer world. He was also tasked with conducting U.N. system-wide coordination including on the secretary-general’s “Call to Action for Human Rights.”
Tirana Hassan, interim executive director of Human Rights Watch, responded to the nomination saying: “The new high commissioner will have his work cut out combating a difficult human rights environment across the globe.”
“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, adding that a top priority must be to immediately follow up on Bachelet’s report on the Uyghurs.
“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,” Hassan said.
Jordans reported from Berlin