GENEVA – Barely a month after taking office as the new UN human rights chief, Volker Türk was last week in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region to meet with victims of a conflict that has displaced millions of people.
A day later, in the capital, Khartoum, he met the generals who were clinging to power with the help of troops using lethal force against protesters. He told the generals that Sudan needed to transition to civilian rule and “ensure that the human rights of all Sudanese are the driving force behind this political process”.
Former United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights typically spend a few months at the headquarters of the United Nations human rights office on Lake Geneva to familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the job before leaving for country visits. But Mr. Türk has started planning his visit to Sudan before officially starting work and is working to make one or two more trips before the end of the year. A mission to Ukraine is on his agenda.
His quickness to embrace the job indicates the practical benefits he brings to the post as a UN insider familiar with the organization’s Byzantine bureaucracy. Mr. Türk, 50, brings 30 years of experience working for the United Nations, first in its refugee agency – for which he traveled to Darfur 11 years ago – then, over the last three years, in the service of the Secretary General, António Guterres, in New York as a political adviser, particularly in the field of human rights.
Mr. Türk’s background as an insider, however, has contributed to the chilling response his nomination has garnered from international rights organizations. In the past, UN chiefs have chosen former heads of government, eminent jurists or diplomatic heavyweights for the notoriously difficult human rights post, because the job requires courting world leaders and, sometimes to reprimand them for their human rights violations.
According to critics, Mr. Türk was not suited by his experience and temperament to such a delicate role. And his appointment by a UN secretary-general seen as weak on human rights has fueled fears that Mr Guterres has chosen a low-key diplomat more likely to share his boss’s preference for secret diplomacy than to deploy the powerful weapon of public pressure.
But the steady stream of statements and comments from Mr. Türk in his first month on the job has given hope to some skeptics. On his second day in office, he condemned Ethiopian airstrikes on civilian targets in Tigray as “totally unacceptable”. After Elon Musk took over Twitter, Mr Türk published an open letter reminding the tech billionaire of the platform’s responsibility “to avoid amplifying content that infringes on people’s rights”.
And as the COP27 climate conference opened in Egypt, Mr Türk came under fire from the government for urging him to release Alaa Abd El Fattah, a political prisoner who was recently on hunger strike, as well as other “unjustly convicted” detainees.
Greater challenges loom.
A major test of Mr Türk’s effectiveness will be what he does to follow up on the report that his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, released minutes before stepping down that China may have committed crimes against humanity by repressing Uyghurs and other Muslims in its far western region. from Xinjiang.
China dismissed the report as a politicized concoction of Western lies that the United Nations should not have published. Chinese diplomats in Geneva sought to discredit the report as lacking support for the high commissioner’s office.
Beijing may find Mr. Türk’s reaction disappointing. He says he considers the document meticulously researched and important.
“It’s the report from my office, and I’m invested in it,” he said in an interview. “There are strong recommendations, and my goal will be to find ways to engage with the Chinese authorities on the implementation of those recommendations.”
More generally, Mr. Türk told reporters this month: “I will speak up when we feel our voice can make a difference or when it is needed to amplify the voices of victims in particular or to ring the doorbell of alarm”.
Mr. Türk’s activism comes as no surprise to former colleagues familiar with his career with the UN refugee agency. After field assignments in the Congo, Kosovo and Southeast Asia, he became chief protection officer, a role some describe as human rights in action.
“He’s a guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty, not an office dweller,” said Kirsten Young, a UN colleague and close friend who worked alongside Mr. Türk in Kosovo and in other regions. “Much of the work he has been involved in has saved lives.”
For those who know him well, Ms. Young said, Mr. Türk’s appointment as UN human rights chief was the natural culmination of his life’s work.
“Destiny fulfilled,” she called him.
Mr. Türk sees his new job as the natural progression after a life dedicated to human rights.
“It started very early,” he said, producing as evidence a faded and dismembered copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights he received at school in New York. adolescence and which he still carries in his wallet.
‘I was marked by the history of my country,’ he said, referring to the Nazi annexation of what is now Austria and the country’s ties to the Holocaust . “I’m still part of that generation that thought: how could this happen, it’s amazing, what can I do to seek a better world?”
A law degree followed in the 1970s, when, he says, he was impressed by the rise of feminist and anti-apartheid movements. He went on to obtain a doctorate in international refugee law, paving the way for his employment with the United Nations refugee agency.
“I was fascinated that the UN could step into a situation and directly do something for people,” he said.
Refugee protection work has also taken its toll. Mr. Türk recalled how, in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, he spent long hours interviewing Palestinian and Iraqi detainees and hearing traumatic experiences of imprisonment, sexual abuse and torture.
“You deal with it,” he said, “but it really stuck with me.”
Now his ambitions as high commissioner include building a much stronger UN human rights presence on the ground and raising much more money for an office that is vastly underfunded. , given the demands it faces.
The “greatest challenge” that Mr Türk foresees is to rekindle a global consensus recognizing human rights as universal and essential to tackle current issues, including the war in Ukraine and climate change. It pushes back against the “misconception” that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international human rights protections adopted since World War II, is a cocktail of Western values.
Human rights, he says, “cannot be the collateral damage of geopolitics and division”.