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The U.N. Gave a Quiet Diplomat the Wrong Job

Volker Türk lacks the temperament to be the United Nations human rights chief.

By , a former executive director of Human Rights Watch.
A silhouette of diplomats meeting in Belgrade on Dec. 3, 2015.
A silhouette of diplomats meeting in Belgrade on Dec. 3, 2015.
A silhouette of diplomats meeting in Belgrade on Dec. 3, 2015. JONATHAN ERNST/AFP via Getty Images

The selection of Volker Türk as the next United Nations high commissioner for human rights risks becoming not only the most expected but also the most disappointing appointment of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s tenure. An Austrian lawyer, Türk has long experience in the United Nations. Guterres previously had appointed him the senior official in charge of refugee protection at the U.N. refugee agency and then undersecretary-general for policy at U.N. headquarters in New York. Türk is widely seen as intelligent, so he may be smart enough to adapt to the needs of his new office. But by virtue of temperament and experience, he seems poorly suited for the U.N.’s top human rights post.

The U.N. human rights chief has few tools available to make a difference. A head of state, by contrast, might condition arms sales, military aid, trade benefits, or even invitations to prestigious summits as an inducement for another government to respect human rights. Such conditionality can be conveyed publicly or privately.

But the U.N. human rights chief has no such enticements to offer. His private conversations have little prospect of changing a government’s conduct. His only ability to move governments is by generating pressure through his investigations and public reporting of human rights violations and his public condemnation of misconduct.

The selection of Volker Türk as the next United Nations high commissioner for human rights risks becoming not only the most expected but also the most disappointing appointment of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s tenure. An Austrian lawyer, Türk has long experience in the United Nations. Guterres previously had appointed him the senior official in charge of refugee protection at the U.N. refugee agency and then undersecretary-general for policy at U.N. headquarters in New York. Türk is widely seen as intelligent, so he may be smart enough to adapt to the needs of his new office. But by virtue of temperament and experience, he seems poorly suited for the U.N.’s top human rights post.

The U.N. human rights chief has few tools available to make a difference. A head of state, by contrast, might condition arms sales, military aid, trade benefits, or even invitations to prestigious summits as an inducement for another government to respect human rights. Such conditionality can be conveyed publicly or privately.

But the U.N. human rights chief has no such enticements to offer. His private conversations have little prospect of changing a government’s conduct. His only ability to move governments is by generating pressure through his investigations and public reporting of human rights violations and his public condemnation of misconduct.

Such public reporting and commentary can be shameful, tarnishing the reputation for respecting human rights that most government seek to cultivate, however disingenuously. That shaming, if done well, can change the cost-benefit calculation behind repression, leading to positive change. But Türk has no history of publicly criticizing particular governments. Like his boss, he seems to prefer to work behind the scenes while speaking publicly in only broad generalities.

Türk’s defenders might note that the high commissioner is also responsible for providing “technical assistance” to governments—that is, advising them on better ways to protect human rights. That work can be done quietly, but it is a small part of the job. Technical assistance is meaningful only for governments that genuinely want to respect human rights but lack the technical know-how. Such governments should be a modest part of the high commissioner’s agenda.

Instead, Türk should be spending the bulk of his time on the world’s most abusive governments. Their repression is due not to technical shortcomings but deliberate choices. Those governments need to be pressured to change—or they will not.

As the top U.N. diplomat, Guterres has placed a premium on keeping the door open to private dialogue with governments. His recent negotiation of an agreement with Russia to permit export of Ukrainian grain illustrates the fruits of that policy, although, ironically, he succeeded despite having been outspoken about Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

But keeping doors open for quiet diplomacy, while certainly desirable, should not be the top priority for the U.N. human rights chief. Rather, the high commissioner should prioritize changing abusive practices, whether or not the necessary pressure closes the door to private dialogue. Sometimes dialogue through the media—public pressure—is all that will work.

Imagine how a private conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping might go if Türk were to prioritize dialogue:

Türk: Mr. President, I really think you should stop the mass detention and forced indoctrination of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims to compel them to abandon their religion, culture, and language.

Xi: That is a worthy topic for continued dialogue. I have reserved a conference room in the third subbasement of the Foreign Ministry where our officials can speak with you semiannually on an off-the-record basis. Of course, if your office criticizes or reports on the Chinese government’s behavior, the dialogue will end.

Beijing has been promoting exactly that approach for defending human rights, based not on public pressure but on friendly dialogue among states—with due deference to differences among nations (meaning the repressive preferences of their governments).

Western governments have abandoned this tilt toward private dialogue as a worthless trap. But Beijing is already trying to entice Türk with it. Playing to his penchant, it is threatening to stop “cooperation” with his office because of its recent report on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

But that seems to be what Guterres wants. He already showed his hand in his treatment of Michelle Bachelet, Türk’s predecessor. Bachelet had rightly long insisted on “unfettered” access to Xinjiang. Beijing had countered that it would welcome her for a “friendly visit”—pleasant chitchat but no investigation. Bachelet properly refused and had a draft report sitting on her desk as early as last October based on remote monitoring (of the sort that Human Rights Watch and others routinely do in Xinjiang and other closed regions).

But then Guterres undercut her while attending the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Criticized for joining the festivities while some million Uyghurs sat in detention in Xinjiang, he announced that he had persuaded Beijing to invite Bachelet for a “visit”—exactly what China had been offering all along, in lieu of an investigation. Sandbagged by her boss, Bachelet was forced to delay her report and accept the offer.

Bachelet made things worse by letting Beijing take her on a show tour, including a meaningless video dialogue with Xi in which he trumpeted China’s respect for human rights. She also adopted Chinese terminology to describe the mass detention of Uyghurs as somehow “counterterrorism” and the detention and indoctrination centers as “vocational training and education center[s].”

In the end, Bachelet made amends for her disastrous visit by issuing a strong report detailing the Chinese government’s persecution in Xinjiang, rebutting Beijing’s cover stories, and finding that these atrocities were so severe they may amount to crimes against humanity (an assessment shared by Human Rights Watch).

But Bachelet issued the report as she was walking out the door—literally 13 minutes before her term ended. Follow-up now falls to Türk.

That follow-up is important because human rights groups have long seen Bachelet’s report as a prerequisite to stronger U.N. action. Reflecting China’s economic and political clout, the U.N. Human Rights Council has never criticized the Chinese government for its abuses in Xinjiang, despite the severity. But slowly, the number of governments willing to condemn those abuses in periodic joint statements has risen to at least 47. Bachelet’s report was seen as necessary to attract enough additional governments from Latin America, Africa, and Asia to ensure a positive vote at the council.

That heavy lift will not happen on its own. It will require the new high commissioner, Türk, to actively press for it. Falling back on private diplomacy will not create the sense of urgency and obligation needed to seize this critical moment of opportunity.

Türk is also a risky choice because he may subscribe to a watered-down version of human rights that will leave officials in Beijing smiling. The Chinese government has been pushing to redefine human rights to mean not civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech and association, or even economic and social rights, which examine how governments allocate available resources to improve access to necessities such as health, education, and housing. Rather, for Beijing, a government should be deemed to respect human rights so long as its economy is growing—with no questions asked about how the benefits of that economy are allocated or whether people in the country have any say in the matter.

Parallels to this approach can be found in the Call to Action for Human Rights, Guterres’s signature human rights initiative, which Türk drafted. Some of it is uncontroversial, such as noting that respect for human rights is essential for success in fighting climate change or pursuing sustainable development.

But there are elements of the Call to Action that seem to treat respect for human rights not as a means to address these global problems but as the consequence of solving them. It allows governments to say that fighting poverty or climate change is upholding human rights, with the detailed human rights obligations enshrined in widely ratified treaties no longer a primary concern.

But that has been Guterres’s comfort zone. He speaks eloquently about these grand issues and even talks in generic terms about the importance of defending human rights, but he tends to keep it all abstract. For most of his first term, he rarely singled out particular governmental offenders. And with no government named, no government felt the heat—or any pressure to change.

In his second term, Guterres has begun to name a handful of abusive governments. But even now, they tend to be pariahs—Myanmar’s junta or the Russian government—that most of the world is already deploring. Despite Bachelet’s damning report, he still has not criticized the Chinese government, preferring to speak in bland, positive terms about the importance of Beijing respecting everyone’s rights.

To be an effective high commissioner, Türk will have to approach human rights differently from his boss. He will have to break from his past as a quiet diplomat and become a firm, principled, outspoken defender of human rights, regardless of the power of the perpetrator.

Türk is just assuming his new office, so we shouldn’t judge him yet. He might rise to the occasion. He might come to understand that indulging Guterres’s antipathy to public criticism is not an effective human rights strategy. The world can only hope that he does.

Kenneth Roth is a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, which he led from 1993 to 2022. Twitter: @KenRoth

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