GENEVA – Barely a month after taking office as the new United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk was in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region last week to meet victims of a conflict that has displaced millions of people.
A day later, in the capital, Khartoum, he found the generals clinging to power with the help of troops who used deadly force against demonstrators. He told the generals Sudan must transition to civilian rule and “ensure that human rights for all people in Sudan are the driving force behind this political process.”
Former UN High Commissioners for Human Rights typically spent a few months at the Geneva Maritime Headquarters of the UN Human Rights Office to familiarize themselves with the complexities of the work before embarking on country visits. But Mr. Türk began arranging his visit to Sudan before officially taking up his job and is working towards making another trip or two before the end of the year. A mission to Ukraine is reportedly on his agenda.
His quickness with which he accepted the job indicates the practical advantages he brings to the post as a UN insider familiar with the organization’s Byzantine bureaucracy. Mister. Türk, 50, brings 30 years of experience working for the United Nations, first at its refugee agency – for which he visited Darfur 11 years ago – and then for the last three years for Secretary-General António Guterres in New York as a political adviser, also for human rights.
Mister. However, Türk’s past as an insider has contributed to the chilly reception of his appointment from international human rights organizations. United Nations chiefs have in the past chosen former heads of government, respected lawyers or diplomatic heavyweights for the notoriously difficult human rights post because the job involves wooing world leaders and sometimes admonishing them for their human rights abuses.
Mister. Critics said Türk’s experience and temperament made him unsuitable for such a delicate role. And his appointment by a UN Secretary-General seen as weak in human rights fueled fears that Mr Guterres had chosen a quiet diplomat who shared his boss’s penchant for backroom diplomacy rather than wielding the powerful weapon of public pressure.
But Mr. Türk’s steady stream of remarks and comments in his first month on the job has given some doubters hope. On his second day in office, he condemned Ethiopian airstrikes on civilian targets in Tigray as “completely 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 leads to the violation of people’s rights.”
And as the COP27 climate change conference opened in Egypt, Mr Türk said he drew the ire of the government for urging them to “close” Alaa Abd El Fattah, a political prisoner who had recently gone on a hunger strike, along with others unjustly convicted” prisoners.
Greater challenges loom.
A big test of Mr Turk’s effectiveness will be what he does to follow up on the report published by his predecessor Michelle Bachelet minutes before he resigned, which found that China may have been committing crimes against humanity when it oppressed Uyghurs and other Muslims in its extreme western region of Xinjiang.
China dismissed the report as a politicized concoction of Western lies that the United Nations should not have published. Chinese diplomats in Geneva tried to discredit the report as a lack of support in the High Commissioner’s office.
Beijing could disappoint Mr. Turk’s reaction. He thinks the document is meticulously researched and important, he says.
“It’s my office’s report and I’m invested in it,” he said in an interview. “There are strong recommendations and I will focus on finding ways and means to work with the Chinese authorities to implement those recommendations.”
General Mr. Türk told journalists this month, “I will speak up when we feel our voice can make a difference or when there is a need, particularly amplifying the voices of victims or raising the alarm.”
Mister. Türk’s activism comes as no surprise to former colleagues familiar with his career at the UN refugee agency. After field assignments in Congo, Kosovo and Southeast Asia, he rose to become a protective officer, a role that some describe as living human rights.
“He’s a guy who rolls up his sleeves, gets his hands dirty, not an office guy,” said Kirsten Young, a UN colleague and close friend who has worked with Mr Turk in Kosovo and other areas. “Much of the work he was involved in was life-saving.”
For those who know him well, Mrs. Jung said Mr. Türk’s appointment as UN human rights chief was a natural culmination of his life’s work.
“Fate fulfilled,” she called it.
Mister. Türk sees his new role as a natural progression after a lifelong focus on human rights.
“It started very early,” he said, producing as evidence a faded, fragmented copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he was given at school as a teenager and which he still carries in his wallet.
“I was shaped by the history of my country,” he said, alluding to the Nazi annexation of modern-day Austria and the country’s ties to the Holocaust. “I’m still part of that generation that thought: how did this happen, this is incredible, what can I do to search for a better world?”
A law degree followed in the 1970s, when he says he was impressed by the growing feminist and anti-apartheid movements. He then did his doctorate in international refugee law, paving the way for his employment at the UN refugee agency.
“I was fascinated by the fact that the UN can go into a situation and directly do something for the people,” he said.
The refugee protection work also took its toll. Mister. Türk recalled spending many hours in Kuwait after the first Gulf War interviewing Palestinian and Iraqi detainees and hearing about traumatic experiences of imprisonment, sexual abuse and torture.
“You deal with it,” he said, “but it shaped me a lot.”
Now, among his ambitions as High Commissioner is to establish a much stronger UN human rights presence on the ground and raise much more money for an office that is severely underfunded given the demands it faces.
The “biggest challenge” Mr. Türk envisages is restoring a global consensus that recognizes human rights as universal and central to addressing the red-hot issues of the time, including the war in Ukraine and climate change. He rejects the “misconception” that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international human rights protection enacted since World War II, is a cocktail of Western values.
Human rights, he says, “must not be the collateral damage of geopolitics and division.”