Posts Tagged ‘Call to Action on human rights (UN)’

New High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk – the man for an impossible job?

September 15, 2022

On 23 June 2022 Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group posted a Blog: “Time to ask again: is being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights an impossible job?”

In February 2018, he published a blog on the early departure of the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The blog responded to David Petrasek’s article in OpenGlobaRights, entitled ‘Another one bites the dust’ (8 February 2018).

Limon argues that the High Commissioner position is, in fact, several jobs rolled into one. The mandate of the High Commissioner and his/her Office comprises inter alia:

  • Monitoring and speaking out about human rights violations around the world – ‘preventing the continuation of human rights violations throughout the world,’ (OP4f of GA resolution 48/141 of 7 January 1994).
  • Acting as the Secretariat to the ‘competent bodies of the United Nations system in the field of human rights and [making] recommendations to them,’ (OP4b of GA res. 48/141).
  • Providing capacity building, advisory services and technical assistance, at the request of the State concerned, ‘with a view to supporting actions and programs in the field of human rights,’ (OP4d, GA res. 48/141).
  • Engaging in human rights diplomacy (‘dialogue’) with governments and ‘enhanc[ing] international cooperation,’ in order to promote the implementation of international human rights obligations and commitments, and respect for human rights, (OP4g, OP5h, GA res. 48/141).
  • Coordinating human rights mainstreaming across the UN system, (OP4i, GA res. 48/141).
  • Making recommendations and driving efforts to ‘rationalize, adapt, strengthen and streamline the United Nations machinery in the field of human rights with a view to improving its efficiency and effectiveness,’ (OP4j, GA res. 48/141).

It is clear that, when held in the hands of a single human being, these different parts of the High Commissioner’s overall mandate operate in tension and are, perhaps, even mutually incompatible…

Is it possible for one person to wear all these hats at the same time? Can a single person publicly criticise States in one breath, then in the next reach out to them to forge agreement on reform of the UN human rights system or to provide human rights technical assistance?

Petrasek has made no secret of his belief (apparently shared by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres) that Zeid over-prioritised human rights monitoring and public advocacy, to the detriment of almost all other parts of his mandate. Yet for many other civil society representatives in Geneva and for many Western diplomats, this singlemindedness (together with Zeid’s natural eloquence) made the former High Commissioner something of a cult hero and the perfect High Commissioner,

Fast forward four and a half years and Zeid replacement as High Commissioner, the former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet, has also fallen on her sword – yet for precisely the opposite reasons as Zeid.

Bachelet was handpicked by Guterres to mark a clear break from Zeid by pursuing a more holistic and balanced approach to the role and mandate of the High Commissioner. In addition to public advocacy Bachelet tried to emphasise human rights diplomacy, international cooperation, support for the international human rights machinery, a focus on emerging thematic human rights concerns (e.g., climate change, the right to a healthy environment, prevention, digital technology), and the on-the-ground delivery of technical assistance and capacity-building support.

See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/06/09/disappointment-with-un-high-commissioners-visit-to-xinjiang-boils-over/ and

In truth, the world needs a High Commissioner Zeid and a High Commissioner Bachelet. The question is: is that possible? Maybe other solutions might be considered? Might, perhaps, the High Commissioner focus on public advocacy, and the Deputy High Commissioner on the more cooperation-orientated aspects of the mandate? Maybe different Deputies could be appointed for each of the main ‘baskets’ of the High Commissioner’s overall mandate? Or maybe the parts of the mandate related to the human rights machinery could be ‘spun off’ – for example, into a new position of secretary-general of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, and of the Treaty Bodies?

These are difficult and sensitive questions, and yet it is surely important that they be asked and considered now rather than later. Perhaps today, as the Secretary-General ponders the appointment of the next High Commissioner, is an opportune moment to do so?

On September 7, 2022, the UN announced Secretary-General António Guterres’ decision to appoint Volker Türk, an Austrian national, to replace Michelle Bachelet.

Reactions were swift, most of them expressing the need for action, e.g. “The new UN high commissioner for human rights should neither seek nor expect a honeymoon period from UN member states,” said Tirana Hassan, interim executive director of Human Rights Watch on 8 September “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.”

Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, Executive Director of Human Rights Likeminded Office was invited by the Universal Human Rights Group on 12 September, 2022, to contribute a Blog `’Who is Volker Türk?’:

Opinions have already begun forming about Volker Türk in the short time since the announcement of his appointment last week as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, in the absence of a public competition, there was little opportunity to learn about Türk. He is also not well-known outside of the UN (and had few followers on twitter until last week). Therefore, in the absence of personal familiarity, it may be useful to focus on his biography, body of work and statements. This would lead to a better understanding of why he was selected for this role. [DISCLAIMER; I happen to know him personally from my days in UNHCR. He has always struck me as an honest and dedicated person with a pronounced interest in the human rights side of refugee work.]

Central to Türk’s biography is his long professional relationship with the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. They worked together at UNHCR when Guterres led the agency as High Commissioner for Refugees. When Guterres became UN Secretary-General, Türk joined him in New York, to serve as Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination in the Executive Office. Guterres promoted him in January, to the rank of Under-Secretary-General for Policy, also in the Executive Office, perhaps setting him up to take the role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Having a close confidant as the High Commissioner may be especially important for the Secretary-General at present, considering the significant current political challenges he faces. This is especially the case in the aftermath of the release of the long-awaited report on Xinjiang by the former High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet. She spared Türk the need to continue holding this hot potato. However, China won’t let Türk off the hook, and will likely exert pressure on him, as it has done with Bachelet, to carefully weigh his words and the way he manages his Office’s work on China. In the meantime, Chen Xu, the Permanent Representative of China in Geneva, announced that ‘the Office closed the door of cooperation by releasing the so-called assessment.’ This means that this is one political crisis that will not end with Bachelet’s departure.

One key question is whether the new High Commissioner will prioritise engagement over speaking truth to power. Bachelet was criticised of doing just that following her recent statements on China, until she released her report at the 11th hour on the job. .. On the face of it, it may appear that Guterres selected a diplomat, rather than an advocate. Türk is a UN career officer through and through, and as such he is in a better position to offer ‘good offices,’ as the UN does, compared to any former Head of State that could have taken the High Commissioner’s post. Among his predecessors were two presidents, two supreme court judges, one foreign minister and one permanent representative to the UN headquarters. However, every day before walking into his new office, the face that Türk will see first is that of his predecessor Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who also spent most of his career in UNHCR. He was commemorated in a bust at the entrance to Palais Wilson, four years after his death in a bombing at UN headquarters in Iraq.

Türk worked in the UN refugee agency for over 30 years, including in the field. Coming from within the UN system is an asset for navigating organisational politics, fostering collaboration with other parts of the UN, enhancing the contribution of OHCHR to all relevant UN fora, and understanding how to engage with Member States to address the situation of the most vulnerable people. His intimate understanding of the UN system is manifested in two major initiatives he stewarded – the Secretary-General’s flagship report, Our Common Agenda, as well as the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. This may not be the place to analyse their successes or shortcomings, but it can be said that they were both well-received. Our Common Agenda offered a vision for mobilising the UN to address global challenges. OHCHR needs a manager with this kind of foresight to grasp the organisation’s structure, programmes and needs. The second initiative, the Call to Action for Human Rights, identified areas for action to advance human rights. As High Commissioner, perhaps Türk will be in a better position to support the implementation of the Call to Action.

This work demonstrates deep engagement on human rights. His legal background, holding a doctorate in international law, will support his role as an advocate. He can substantively articulate concerns and uphold norms based in international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law. He certainly appears as an advocate on twitter (@volker_turk). His tweets show his compassion, as he mostly addresses human rights concerns, with people at the centre.

Civil society was concerned about the selection process. Phil Lynch, Executive Director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), said: ‘The lack of transparency and meaningful consultation with independent civil society in the selection process meant that the Secretary-General missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next High Commissioner.’ The appointment of the Secretary-General’s confidant may have reaffirmed worries that the High Commissioner would prioritise diplomacy and engagement over advocacy for human rights. However, Türk appears to have the appropriate biography and a heart in the right place to fulfil both of the High Commissioner’s roles as an advocate and a diplomat. Hopefully he will be attentive to civil society and rights-holders, in line with his advice during his time as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR: ‘Listen to what refugees are telling us.’

After being appointed at the last minute as the next UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk is not expected to be at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, held from 12 September to 7 October. When he does, Turk will have to grapple among other challenges with his predecessor’s report on Xinjiang, but for the moment deputy high commissioner Nada Al Nashif is in charge of the UN rights office and will have to answer any questions about China that might come up during the first days of debate..

https://www.universal-rights.org/uncategorized/time-to-ask-again-is-being-the-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-an-impossible-job/

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/08/un-new-rights-chief-should-speak-out-all-victims

43rd session HRC: UN Secretary General launches Call to Action on human rights

February 25, 2020
UN Secretary-General António Guterres attends the High Level Segment of the 43rd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. UN Photo/Violaine Martin
On 24 February 2020, with human rights under attack, António Guterres unveiled a blueprint for positive change. People’s basic human rights – their birth-right – are “under assault”, he said as he launched a Call to Action aimed at boosting equality and reducing suffering everywhere. “Human rights are our ultimate tool to help societies grow in freedom,” he told Member States on the opening day of the UN Human Rights Council’s 43rd session in Geneva. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/24/human-rights-defenders-issues-on-the-agenda-of-43rd-human-rights-council/]

In his speech he detailed a seven-point blueprint for positive change and issued an appeal for solidarity. “People across the world want to know we are on their side,” he said. “Whether robbed of their dignity by war, repression of poverty, or simply dreaming of a better future, they rely on their irreducible rights – and they look to us to help uphold them.” Echoing the call for change, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that although threats to human rights, development and peace were on the rise, so were the practical, actionable solutions to these issues.

In his pledge to utilize the full weight of his office and the UN family to fulfil the Call to Action, Mr. Guterres highlighted the enduring value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Highlighting the document’s proclamation that human rights are ‘humanity’s highest aspiration’, Mr. Guterres insisted that all States had a responsibility to protect and promote people’s “dignity and worth”. National sovereignty “cannot be a pretext for violating human rights”, Mr. Guterres insisted, while also maintaining that greater equality “strengthens States and societies, thereby reinforcing sovereignty”.

Positive change is possible, the UN chief insisted, recalling his own experience living under dictatorship in Portugal, which finally gave way to a democratic movement when he was 24 years old. Other “human rights struggles and successes inspired us”, the UN chief said, noting how these had secured the end of apartheid in South Africa and colonial rule. One billion people have also been lifted out of poverty in a generation, he continued, and there have also been major advances in improving access to drinking water, along with big declines in child mortality. ..

Chief among these challenges are several protracted, unresolved conflicts that have left families trapped in war-torn enclaves, “starved and bombed in clear violation of international law”, he said.  Human trafficking also affects “every region of the world”, the UN chief noted, leaving women and girls “enslaved, exploited and abused”, unable to realise their potential.  Journalists and civil society are also under threat, with activists jailed, religious groups and minorities – including indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and the LGBTI community – persecuted under “overly broad definitions of national security”.

Global hunger is also increasing, Mr. Guterres said, before highlighting a series of 21st century issues linked to huge problems that affect all countries: the climate crisis, population growth, urbanization and the dark underbelly of technological progress. “People are being left behind. Fears are growing. Divisions are widening,” he said. “Some leaders are exploiting anxieties to broaden those gaps to breaking point.”

Introducing his Call to Action blueprint, Mr. Guterres explained that its aim was to “transform the ambitions of the Universal Declaration into real-world change on the ground”.

Heading the seven-point protocol is a call to put human rights at the core of sustainable development – a reference to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by the international community in 2015 under the Agenda 2030 banner. “The vast majority of the goals and targets correspond to legally binding human rights commitments made by every Member State,” Mr. Guterres said. “When we help lift people out of abject poverty – when we ensure education for all, notably girls – when we guarantee universal healthcare…we are enabling people to claim their rights and upholding the core pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave nobody behind.”

Among the other priorities, the UN Secretary-General highlighted that much more needs to be done to prevent violence against women. “Violence against women is the world’s most pervasive human rights abuse,” he said, in a call to “every country” to support policies that promote gender equality, repeal discriminatory laws…ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights, and strive for women’s equal representation.

Turning to 21st century challenges, Mr. Guterres reiterated that the climate crisis was “the biggest threat to our survival”. It has already threatened human rights around the world and would continue to do so in future, he noted, before underscoring people’s right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable planet that the Call to Action is designed to achieve. Young people will be empowered to participate in this process, the UN chief insisted, so that they do “not simply speak, but to participate and shape decisions that will affect their future”.

Finally, on the challenges posed to human rights by new technology, Mr. Guterres explained that progress in this field “are too often used to violate rights and privacy through surveillance, repression and online harassment and hate”. Facial recognition and robotics should never be used to deepen inequality, he insisted, while also reiterating his call for online-ready human rights norms such as the Internet Governance Forum.

Following this announcement Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director, said: “…We hope this will translate to a genuine, effective and coordinated UN response to address ongoing human rights crises around the world – from the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the systematic targeting of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia and the mass internment of almost one million Uighurs in China – and to hold states to account. “We welcome any initiative that seeks to put human rights front and centre at the UN across its operations. To ensure the success of this initiative, the Secretary-General must lead by example in his willingness to speak up when abuses are taking place, and must ensure adequate funding for the protection of human rights within the UN. Mr. Guterres has described his new initiative as a call for action. Now we need to see the action.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/02/1057961

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/un-action-plan-on-human-rights-bold-leadership/