UN taps Austrian as next rights chief
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UN taps Austrian as next rights chief

Volker Turk will face huge job following up on Xinjiang abuse report, among other challenges

Volker Turk has said that hate speech and its
Volker Turk has said that hate speech and its "dehumanising effect on people" are a major global problem. (AFP File Photo)

UNITED NATIONS: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has tapped the Austrian diplomat Volker Turk to be the next High Commissioner for Human Rights, according to a document sent Thursday to the General Assembly, which must approve the choice.

The UN veteran would replace Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president who was appointed four years ago with the specific intent of having a powerful female politician in the role.

"The secretary-general proposes to appoint Mr Volker Turk (Austria) as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights," Guterres wrote, in a letter seen by AFP. "The secretary-general trusts that the General Assembly will approve this appointment."

Multiple sources said that Guterres had notified UN member states late on Wednesday that he wants Turk, who is currently serving as assistant secretary general for policy, in the challenging role.

The General Assembly was expected to address the matter during a meeting later on Thursday or Friday, diplomatic sources said.

The 57-year-old Turk has spent most of his career within the UN system, with a particular focus on refugee questions. He worked closely with Guterres back when the latter headed the UN refugee agency.

Turk represented UNHCR in Malaysia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina before being assigned to the headquarters.

"In my thirty-year long #UNHCR work with refugees, I have seen time and again the consequences of hate speech and its dehumanising effect on people. Say #NoToHate is the only powerful answer," he wrote in July on Twitter.

Guterres's choice of a figure unknown to the wider public stands in contrast to his appointment of the high-profile Bachelet, who ended her tenure last week.

But "in all previous appointments, the secretary general's recommended candidate has been approved by consensus," the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) pointed out in a statement.

Turk will have his work cut out: Bachelet published a long-awaited report on rights abuses in China's Xinjiang region just minutes before the end of her term, leaving the tricky follow-up job to her successor.

The report urged Beijing to end "discriminatory" practices against Xinjiang's Uyghur community and other Muslim-majority populations.

Detailing a string of rights violations including torture, forced labor and arbitrary detention, it brought the UN seal to many of the allegations long made by activist groups, Western nations and the Uyghur community in exile.

It said China may have carried out "crimes against humanity" but stopped short of calling Beijing's treatment of Uyghurs "genocide" — a term used since January 2021 by the United States and since embraced by parliaments in a number of other Western nations.

China has vehemently rejected such charges and criticized Bachelet's report, accusing the UN of becoming a "thug and accomplice of the US and the West."

Stakes 'never been higher'

Rights groups have been calling for the next UN rights chief to be "courageous" enough to take on even the most powerful countries and denounce violations.

Prior to releasing the bombshell report, Bachelet had come under serious criticism over her approach to the situation in Xinjiang.

In a recent interview with AFP, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said the rights chief job needed "somebody who's willing to speak out in a principled public way, regardless of the perpetrator."

"This is not a job for a nice, quiet diplomat," he said.

For Bachelet's successor, ISHR programme director Sarah Brooks warned that "the stakes have never been higher."

The organisation and others have been heavily critical of the opaque nature of the appointment process. ISHR director Phil Lynch warned that this lack of transparency and consultation could come at a price.

"The secretary-general missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next high commissioner," he said.

He added, though, that his organisation and others would "seek to work closely and collaboratively with the next high commissioner to protect human rights and to pursue accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims."

The UN General Assembly created the OHCHR in December 1993. The resolution spelling out its mandate calls for the top job to rotate by geographic region, but the idea is not always respected as several Latin Americans have held the post.

Until now, the only regional group not to have held the top job is Eastern Europe, which includes Russia.

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