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UN human rights chief hopes to avoid "whirlwind of geopolitics"

By Dave Lawler, author of Axios World

January 19, 2023

Türk at his office in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

DAVOS, Switzerland — UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk tells Axios he's determined not to get caught up in "the whirlwind of geopolitics" or "any agenda" in the role he assumed in October.

Flashback: In the final hours of her tenure, Türk's predecessor Michelle Bachelet defied intense pressure from Beijing to release a report accusing the Chinese government of "serious human rights violations" in Xinjiang.

  • Türk told Axios the "complex task" of "ensuring follow-up on the recommendations" in the report now falls to him.

  • Türk didn't criticize the handling of the report but quickly pivoted to his belief that while public pronouncements are sometimes necessary, private conversations can be more effective.

  • "I need to be able to have the ability to talk to member states in such a way that I could influence their behavior," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Between the lines: Some human rights advocates criticized the appointment of the low-profile Türk, an Austrian lawyer with two decades of UN experience, to replace Bachelet, a former Chilean president. Former Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth predicted that Türk would favor "quiet diplomacy," which he argued would not work with China.

  • For his part, Türk told Axios: "You need to do both, and you need to choose the best tool at the appropriate time."

  • He expects pushback no matter where his office conducts investigations. "No one wants to have anyone look into their backyard. There will always be reactions that are not very pleasant. I will have those unpleasant conversations with whomever I have to have them [with]."

What to watch: Türk already spoke about Russian "war crimes" on a trip to Ukraine and denounced President Biden's new border policies.

  • Still, he says he plans to emphasize "forgotten" human rights crises, like Haiti and South Sudan.


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