Turk’s first task is to follow up on a report from a former UN rights chief on the mistreatment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang.
Volker Turk, an experienced UN employee from Austria, has been chosen by the UN General Assembly to succeed Michelle Bachelet as the organization’s high commissioner for human rights.
Turk was recommended as the replacement for Bachelet, whose term ended on August 31, and the UN’s 193-member assembly swiftly confirmed the appointment on Thursday by consensus.
Turk stated that he had “a tremendous sense of responsibility” taking on his new position and that he was “deeply honored” to be chosen as the next High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Will give it my all to advance the promises of Universal Declaration of Human Rights for everyone, everywhere”, Turk said in a tweet on Friday.
In a statement, the UN noted that Turk had a long and illustrious career advancing human rights all around the world.
“Notably the international protection of some of the world’s most vulnerable people — refugees and stateless persons,” the UN said.
Turk had also previously worked with the UN agency for refugees in Kuwait, Malaysia, Kosovo, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Turk, who most recently served as the under-secretary-general for policy in Guterres’ office, now has the difficult task of handling the response to a UN rights agency report on China’s systematic mistreatment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Bachelet released the long-delayed report minutes before she left, stating that the “arbitrary and discriminatory incarceration” of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the area may constitute crimes against humanity.
In response to Turk’s appointment, the Uyghur Human Rights Project welcomed him to his new role and urged him to vigorously investigate any potential crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
“There should be no special treatment for powerful governments who commit the most serious human rights abuses,” the group’s executive director, Omer Kanat, said in a statement.
“The UN’s top human rights official needs to demonstrate that he understands the gravity of the issues facing Uyghurs, and this should be reflected in a strong approach to the Chinese government,” Kanat said in a statement.
According to the organization, the incoming UN human rights commissioner must show his independence and “call out powerful actors, like the Chinese government, to stop abuses.”
Any violations in Xinjiang have been categorically rejected by China.
“It is China’s hope that Mr Turk will lead the office in strictly abiding by the principles of objectivity, impartiality … and non-politicisation,” China’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dai Bing told the General Assembly on Thursday.
Deputy US Ambassador to the UN Lisa Carty also said Turk “must serve as an independent, impartial, and unwavering voice for human rights issues around the world”.
Human Rights Watch, located in New York, stated that Turk must promptly follow up on Bachelet’s report on Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minority in Xinjiang, and he must be prepared to denounce human rights crimes committed by both US partners and the US government.
“Whether it’s confronting crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, war crimes in Ukraine and Ethiopia, or racism in the United States, the rights chief’s most effective tools are robust investigations and a strong voice,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Federico Villegas, a career diplomat from Argentina, and Adama Dieng, a genocide prevention expert from Senegal, had both applied for the position.
Turk’s hiring was also criticized.
Turk’s appointment, according to International Service for Human Rights executive director Phil Lynch, lacked transparency and impartial civil society consultation.
“The Secretary-General missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next High Commissioner”, Lynch said.