Cash-strapped UN human rights chief pleas for funds as crises clash and spiral

Volker Türk speaking to journalists after a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, 24 May 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Volker Türk said $800 million are needed yearly, noting rich nations are quick to splurge when it comes to banks or the military, but not 'when it comes to people'.

Dire humanitarian crises are piling up across the world, yet the United Nations’ human rights watchdog is still strapped for cash, its chief warned Wednesday.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has its hands full as it races to respond to the human rights impacts of climate-driven and manmade disasters, state-sponsored discrimination and full-out conflict, its chief, Volker Türk, told a press conference in Geneva.

But as these parallel crises continue to flare and some spiral, Türk warned that his organisation was running on empty and chided global leaders for not taking human rights funding more “seriously”.

“The needs have exponentially increased, but there isn't the commensurate funding available on the humanitarian front – that’s just the reality,” he said. “And, unfortunately, that trend has been there for quite a number of years.”

“We have this combination of protracted conflict situations; we have the increase in new and emerging crises and [in] both non-international armed conflict and international armed conflict,” he said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But despite the OHCHR being a central pillar of the UN’s organisational machinery, together with its agencies working on peace and security and on sustainable development, Türk said that funding for their mission – which takes up only four per cent of the UN’s regular budget – was just not up to task as global attention for human rights affairs continued to dwindle.

Türk said earlier this year his office needed $452 million to cover its activities. A third of that comes from the UN’s regular budget, while the remaining chunk needs to be filled by donors. But, year after year, donations come up short – and, more often than not, with strings attached.

Responding to a question on their funding needs, the UN rights chief said he “would want to see a doubling, which would be about $800 million per year, for the organisation”.

Crisis upon crisis

Türk addressed a grim roster of situations currently followed by the OHCHR, where human rights were being trampled on amid active armed conflicts, including in Sudan and Ukraine, or at the hands of authoritarian governments in Myanmar and Iran.

In Sudan, he said that the “senseless” fighting between two generals vying for power had civilians “besieged” as ceasefires were broken and added that his office had documented at least 25 cases of sexual violence.

“Civilians must be spared, and you must stop this senseless violence now,” he said, directly appealing to the rival generals to cease fighting and to issue “clear instructions that there is zero tolerance for sexual violence”.

In Myanmar, he said the landing of cyclone Mocha earlier this month was “the latest, deeply painful manifestation of a manmade disaster” for the country’s Rohingya minority, who have been the target of a violent crackdown by authorities that the United States has branded as genocidal.

Read more: Volker Türk: ‘It’s my duty to be the voice of human rights’ - Geneva Solutions

The high commissioner slammed policies stripping women and girls of their rights in Afghanistan and those criminalising LGBTQ+ communities in Uganda. He also pointed to Beijing’s crackdown against human rights defenders as a sign of “shrinking civic space” in China.

Türk added that he was “deeply troubled by the growing phenomenon of anti-rights movements” targeting asylum seekers in the US and Europe as “hateful narratives against migrants and refugees also continue to proliferate”, spurring “anti-migrant” laws and policies that undermine basic human rights and international refugee laws.

“The developments that are unfolding in various countries including the United Kingdom, the US, Italy, Greece and Lebanon are particularly concerning,” he said, as they “appear designed” to hinder the right to seek asylum, to penalise citizens for assisting those in need or to organise returns in “unlawful, undignified and unsustainable ways”.

Expressing concern about regular reports of racially-motivated police brutality against Black people in the US, Türk said that “much more” needed to be done to root out systemic racism, noting that cases where racist policing was dealt with justly, such as in the infamous killing of George Floyd by police, remained “exceptional in the US and globally”.

Neglected crises, dwindling funding

Türk also said that, while some crises captured news headlines, others remained “neglected” and starved of global attention – and of the accompanying cash. He cited the example of Haiti, where an explosion of gang-led violence has engulfed the country, where he recently travelled.

Read more: Gang violence testing humanitarian response in Haiti

“We have some [crises] in the headlines all the time, but others are not. Haiti is a good example. There seems to be (…) no sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with a situation like this.”

Doubling down on the need for increased funding to respond to the raft of human rights situations the OHCHR is grappling with, Türk called out rich countries for willingly unleashing healthy flows of cash for strategic matters, such as their banking or military sectors but not when it came to helping people in need.

“When you look at how quickly billions can be made available when there is a banking crisis or and – I'm sure, rightly so – including military expenditure and so forth… when it comes to people and the plight of people, there doesn't seem to be the same,” he said.

“Donor countries, they have a budget for peace and security, they have a budget for development (…) but they don’t actually have a budget down for human rights,” he said. “It is actually important to take human rights seriously, not just by (...) coming to the [UN Human Rights] Council and having all these discussions here and working with us, but also by having and increasing the funding for the organisation.”