September will mark one year since Volker Türk’s appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, after his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, chose not to continue for a second term (no High Commissioner has served out two full terms). It is fair to say that the choice of Türk, widely predicted by UN insiders due to his close relationship with the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, was met with a mixed reaction from the human rights community. Many Western States and NGOs, which have long pushed for High Commissioners to be ‘global human rights advocates’ – i.e., individuals who emphasise public criticism of States and the ‘calling out’ of human rights violations (except, in the case of States, when such criticism is focused on themselves or their allies) – were quick to express their disappointment at the appointment of someone they considered a ‘quiet diplomat’ or ‘UN insider.’ Others, including the Universal Rights Group (URG), welcomed the Secretary-General’s pick as someone who might finally be able to ‘square the circle’ of the High Commissioner’s multifaceted and sometimes contradictory mandate.
Regarding the latter view, shortly after Bachelet had announced that she would leave her post at the end of her first term, Marc Limon, Executive Director of URG, published an article positing the question: ‘Time to ask again: is being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights an impossible job?’ In it, Limon noted, as he had after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s tenure, that different aspects of the High Commissioner’s mandate, as established by the General Assembly, appear to exist in tension with one another. A High Commissioner is expected to simultaneously monitor human rights violations and publicly call out violators (i.e., ‘name and shame’ States), and work with those same States to shape universal human rights norms and support progress on the ground – through cooperation, dialogue, and the building of mutual trust.
In other words, the position entails wearing different hats, and weighing the expectations and consequences of switching between them. The article ended by asking the question: is it possible for one person to wear both hats – to criticise States yet also build trust with them, to monitor and investigate abuses on the ground yet also work with States to help deliver human rights progress through technical assistance and capacity-building support? Limon concluded that, thus far, no High Commissioner had succeeded in ‘squaring this circle.’ To take the last two High Commissioners as examples, Zeid ended his tenure amid accusations that he had focused too much on public condemnation (albeit evenly distributed between developed and developing countries), while Bachelet was ultimately forced out under a wave of criticism from Western NGOs and (some) States that she had been too focused on quiet diplomacy and insufficiently robust on accusations of gross and systematic violations (especially in the context of China’s Xinjiang region).
Walking the tightrope
From the start, Türk was certainly aware of the potential risks involved in ‘balancing’ the different aspects of his mandate. However, cleverly, he argued that rather than operating in tension, these different parts should be seen as mutually reinforcing.
Soon after taking office, he made this position clear: ‘I don’t see these roles to be mutually exclusive. It means you have to advocate precisely to advance human rights for everyone, everywhere in the world.’ The key, according to the new High Commissioner, is to ‘always be guided, first and foremost, by the impact our work has on the people that we serve.’ In other words, the High Commissioner should look at every situation on its own merits, and adopt an approach to that situation that is most likely to have a positive impact on people’s lives and rights. ‘There is no one-size-fits-all approach to every situation,’ he said. ‘I hope to use every tool at our disposal to advance the human rights of all people.’ In some cases (in fact, URG would argue, in most cases) that means working with governments to strengthen their engagement with the human rights mechanisms and helping them, through technical assistance and capacity-building support, to implement the recommendations received from those mechanisms. In other cases, for example, where a State refuses to cooperate or even acknowledge a problem, it might mean public advocacy – calling out violations and urging States to better protect the rights of their people.
So, almost a year after taking office, how has Volker Türk fared?
Türk has certainly displayed many of the traits hailed by some when he was originally selected: his organisational savviness, gained after more than three decades in the UN system, and his technical understanding of the international human rights framework – as well as how that framework fits within the wider UN architecture. Critically, he has used this knowledge, experience, and expertise to try to reconcile the different parts of this mandate, and thus perhaps avoid the fate of his predecessors.
His strategy for doing so has been two-fold.
First, he has sought to base his and his Office’s work on unimpeachable ‘common ground’ – namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He has repeatedly used his speeches and press statements to draw attention to the importance of the Universal Declaration, and on Human Rights Day 2022 launched his Human Rights 75 Initiative to ‘rejuvenate the Universal Declaration [and] demonstrate how it can meet the needs of our time.’ The Initiative will culminate in a high-level event in December 2023.
Second, based on his assertion that ‘there is no one-size-fits-all approach to every situation,’ he has attempted to tailor his and his Office’s approach to engaging with different States, based on what, in his view, is most likely to work and to have a positive impact on human rights.
It is clear from his first year in Office that, in most cases, he believes that positive change can best be delivered by talking directly to governments (through country visits), by encouraging the strengthening of State cooperation with the human rights mechanisms, and by strengthening OHCHR’s and the wider UN system’s ability to deliver technical assistance and capacity-building support to help States implement the recommendations received from those mechanisms.
On the first point, to date, Türk has conducted eleven country visits, meeting with governments and other national stakeholders. He has been to States engulfed in conflict (e.g., Sudan, Ukraine), those experiencing transitions (e.g., Uzbekistan), and those embroiled in political or economic crises (e.g., Venezuela). He has also used his visits to ‘cast a spotlight and help spur action’ in the context of situations that have not received broad international attention (e.g., Haiti), and to reinforce cooperation, (e.g., Colombia and Ecuador).
On the second point, he has repeatedly used his statements to the Human Rights Council to emphasise the importance of State cooperation with the human rights mechanisms (as well as with his Office), and to praise those States with strong records of engagement and call out those with poor levels of cooperation. For example, the High Commissioner used his global update at the start of the 53rd session of the Council in June to urge greater [State] cooperation with the human rights mechanisms. In his statement he made a point to name the 95 States that accommodate field presences, the 10 States receiving the most visits from Special Procedures, the 19 States not receiving any visits, the 37 States that are up to date in their Treaty Bodies reporting, and the 78 that have a significant number of reports overdue.
On the third point (strengthening OHCHR’s and the wider UN system’s ability to help States implement the recommendations they receive from the mechanisms), Türk has used his first year to consistently push for the strengthening of his Office’s capacities and its links with the broader UN (including the UN development system). While acknowledging recent progress – in 2022, voluntary contributions increased by 5%, and staff numbers grew from 1,669 in 103 field presences to 1,841 across 104 field presences (OHCHR recently announced that it would seek to establish new field presences in India and China) – Türk has continually advocated for the expansion and strengthening of the historically underfunded human rights pillar. He has consistently warned States that insufficient resources threaten the deployment of human rights advisers and the delivery of technical cooperation, and thus urged them to scale-up financial support (especially un-earmarked financial support).
However, where States are not cooperating with the human rights mechanisms and his Office, and/or where they are refusing to meaningfully engage with the UN to acknowledge and address allegations of serious human rights violations, Türk has not been afraid to use other tools at his disposal (and other parts of his mandate), including public ‘naming and shaming.’ To offer just a few examples, he has denounced the ‘fortress mentality of those who wield power’ in Iran, criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as ‘madness’ that ‘defies any reason,’ and called out the Russian authorities for the climate of impunity they have created; condemned serious human rights violations committed by the military regime in Myanmar, and called for an end to the ‘senseless fighting’ in Sudan. Türk has also called out Western States, including Australia, France, Ireland, and the US, for racial discrimination in law enforcement, and the UK government on its recent migration legislation, which he has said is contrary to international law.
Notwithstanding, Türk has been careful to also ‘call out’ and recognise progress – i.e., not only ‘name and shame’ but also ‘name and praise.’ For example, he has drawn attention to human rights ‘good news stories’ such as the abolition of the death penalty in the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia, or advances in justice for the crime of genocide in Rwanda and crimes against humanity in Kenya.
Wearing two hats at once
While it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions about whether Türk is succeeding in reconciling the different aspects of his mandate, the early signs, as summarised above, are certainly encouraging. His focus on identifying the best way to secure positive human rights impacts in a country, and then deploying his tools accordingly, rather than beginning from an ideological stance of having to choose between ‘condemnation’ or ‘cooperation,’ has been especially astute. Maybe, just maybe, Türk will become the first High Commissioner to show that it is possible to wear two hats at once.
 From November 2022 to July 2023, the High Commissioner visited Sudan, Ukraine, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Belgium (meeting also with EU representatives).
Photo credit: Volker Türk, High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomes the journalist at the Palais Wilson. 17 October 2022. UN photo by Violaine Martin
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