UN approves Austrian Volker Turk as new human rights chief

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United Nations General Assembly on Thursday endorsed a veteran Austrian diplomat to be the global body’s human rights chief and advocate for respect for universal rights at a time when the office is sharply criticized by China for accusing Beijing of abusing Muslim minorities.

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On Wednesday evening, General Secretary Antonio Guterres nominated Volker Turk, his top political boss, and the 193-member assembly quickly approved the appointment by consensus with a hammer blow from its acting president, followed by a volley of applause.

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Turk will replace Michelle Bachelet of Chile as High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva.

Bachelet’s four-year term ended on August 31 with the last-minute release of his highly critical report on China’s detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang, which, may constitute crimes against humanity.

China blasted the report, accusing the UN rights office of fabrication and allowing itself to be used by Western nations.

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Tuerk can also expect to come under pressure from human rights activists.

Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnès Callamard, said he was appointed “at a time when human rights are under serious threat around the world”.

“Immediately, he must help shape an effective human rights response and account 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 Burma as examples. “His agenda should also include strengthening the human rights response to climate change and rising inequality.”

Turk, who holds a doctorate in international law from the University of Vienna, has worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees around the world, including in Malaysia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo and Kuwait, before taking up key positions at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. From 2015 to 2019, he served as Deputy High Commissioner for Protection, where he focused on the development of the Global Compact on Refugees.

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From 2019 to January 2022, Turk served as Deputy Secretary General for Strategic Coordination in Guterres’ office. The UN chief then appointed him assistant secretary-general for policy in his executive office.

This year, Turk focused on following up on Guterres’ September 2021 report titled “Our Common Agenda” outlining his vision of the “breakthrough scenario” towards a greener and safer world. He was also tasked with ensuring UN system-wide coordination, including on the Secretary-General’s “Call to Action for Human Rights”.

Tirana Hassan, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch, responded to the appointment by saying, “The new high commissioner will have his work cut out to tackle a challenging human rights environment around the world.

“Whether it’s tackling crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, war crimes in Ukraine and Ethiopia, or racism in the United States, the rights leader’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 the millions of people around the world whose rights are violated every day need is an advocate in their corner who will take on abusive governments, big and small, without fear and without hesitation,” Hassan said. .

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