Volker Türk: ‘It’s my duty to be the voice of human rights’

Volker Türk, UN high commissioner for human rights, speaking at the 15th anniversary of the Geneva Academy International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Geneva, 30 November. (Credit: MLangrand)

As the world marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, when in 1948, members of the newly established United Nations signed a declaration outlining 30 different rights and freedoms that deserve universal protection, Volker Türk, the organisation's new guardian of those rights, says it's time for that universality to be regained.

It has been less than two months since Volker Türk took the helm as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights. But already, the 57 year-old Austrian international lawyer and long-serving UN veteran has wasted no time in confronting the myriad of human rights challenges awaiting his office’s attention.

Türk has already completed two field visits – the first to Sudan, where he called on factions to reach an agreement to end worsening political crisis following last year’s military coup. Just days ago, he returned from Ukraine where his office released a report detailing the killing of hundreds of civilians in the north of the country by Russian forces in the early days of the war.

He has issued over a dozen statements, drawing attention to human rights crises and abuses in Haiti, Egypt and Somalia but also praising steps taken in Kenya and the Central African Republic to gain justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In November, at the Human Rights Council’s special session on Iran, Türk did not shy away from denouncing the government’s “fortress mentality” and calling for an end to violence against peaceful protestors.

Arguably one of the toughest roles in the UN system – one where predecessors have been criticised either for not speaking up loudly enough on human rights abuses or for lacking diplomatic tact – Türk spoke to Geneva Solutions at an event organised by the academic institution, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, for its 15th anniversary about the challenges of navigating the role – and why it’s his responsibility “not to be beholden to any agenda”.

The answers have been edited and shortened for clarity and length.

Saturday 10 December marks Human Rights Day; the day, in 1948, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the UN.  With this milestone – and your new role – in mind, what’s your vision for human rights?

I think we have to start with where we are with the world and we are at a very peculiar moment.  We have all lived through these multiple crises. We have seen the geopolitics, the divisions, the fragmentation, and all these things that have preoccupied us at a time when you would hope that the international community would come together and craft something that would respond to the big challenges that we face.

So for me, human rights is the force that comes in and unifies us.  Because it brings us back to human dignity and to what makes us all connected with each other. Let’s not forget that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War.  It provided the inspiration and the motivation that the world needed at that time.  So, I think we need to almost counter intuitively go back to the basics of what this unifying force – this concentration on the human being – was.  We need to regain the universality and the indivisibility of the human rights regime.

Secondly, we also need to look at human rights in the 21st century, for example in the digital transformation that we’re seeing. Take the letter I wrote to Twitter’s Elon Musk, for instance. Social media platforms play a very important role. We know the role Facebook played in Myanmar, for example, when the Rohinga crisis happened, in allowing disinformation and hatred to spread. So, human rights needs to look at the type of issues that we face today.

And the third area that I hope we can achieve next year, is we have to look at the human rights ecosystem as a whole. So, what is the role of the treaty bodies, of the special procedures mandate-holders, of the Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review process, and of my own office too – and how do we strategically deal with different situations?

You have arguably one of the toughest and most sensitive roles at the UN, both having to engage with world leaders but also calling countries out, when necessary. How do you intend to walk this tightrope?

It’s important to have a High Commissioner who is not beholden to any agenda, except for the one that the UN Charter puts forward and that the human rights regime puts forward. And that is actually an interesting guide because it helps you to deal with some of the complexities and the dilemmas that we face but also pushes us to constantly innovate and to be creative about the tools and the impact we have on the ground. It’s about asking, ‘what is it that we can do and change in the lives of people’?

“It’s important to have a High Commissioner who is not beholden to any agenda”


At the UNHCR, we saw concretely what happened on the ground because of our activities.  And it’s similar at the OHCHR, albeit it is complex, of course, because – despite it being one of the three pillars of the UN, it remains vastly underfunded. So I agree that it is a very difficult job. But I think it is helped by the fact that you can always ask yourself, ‘what is it that I can do because of this position that makes a difference in the lives of people, guided by international human rights law?’

Of course, when it comes to the tools, there you have the dilemma, because sometimes it’s better to engage behind the scenes, other times it’s better to make clear that you need public advocacy very early on, and sometimes you need both. Sometimes you need to see who is best placed to do what within the [United Nations] ecosystem.

The advantage of the role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is that, when it comes to serious human rights abuses, you are the voice, to ensure that the world knows about it. It has a very important role to make that visible. And in a way, that’s a bit different than if you’re just dealing with political matters, where you need your space, and you need to make sure that it doesn’t always take place in public. With human rights, at least when it comes to the most egregious issues, it’s your duty to be the voice. So, I know there are going to be a lot of dilemmas and complexities in the many views about how you deal with different situations. But at the end of the day, it comes back to the basics, to what’s the impact on people, and what’s the best avenue, best tool, and to never to have a binary approach to things.

“With human rights, at least when it comes to the most egregious issues, it’s your duty to be the voice".”

At the Human Rights Council’s recent urgent debate on Iran, where a fact-finding probe into its crackdown on anti-protests was established,  you urged the authorities to stop using violence and said ‘the old methods and the fortress mentality of those who wield power simply don’t work’.  What if a country decides not to engage or change that ‘fortress mentality’ – like we have seen in the case of Iran who has reportedly said they won’t cooperate with the council?

Well, there are different layers, as always, which is why I’m saying sometimes things that appear to be a certain way and that you actually go behind it – where you discover that it’s like an onion that you peel. I had some engagement with the Iranian authorities before the Human Rights Council special session … and as I said in my statement to the special session, I expressed that it pained me to see what’s happening in Iran, especially for women and young people and girls, and deaths and the fact that there is this repressive response to it. I actually said to them, ‘why don't you surprise the world?’ Which is why I talked about this fortress mentality, because the fortress mentality immediately goes into, we have to protect what is in danger, this security, without actually realising that something else is going on…. So for us it’s important after the council session to engage with them and see whether there are ways and means to at least open the door a little bit here and there. And to find ways of dealing with it in a way that opens up the possibility for change.

You’ve already completed two field visits since taking up your post, the first one to Sudan. What did you achieve on this visit?

Sudan is an interesting case in point of [this possibility of change] I mentioned. You had 30 years of military dictatorship and repression; where you could hardly talk about human rights in the past. Then you had the revolution that started in December 2018, and it was a revolution that was built on freedoms, justice and peace. And it was, again, led by young people and women, which was impressive.

Whilst there, I met, of course, with civil society and human rights defenders, with victims, as well as with the generals, and the caretaker government. But the one thing that strikes me is that you could actually discuss human rights with them, including with the current head of state, and that’s quite remarkable. You could raise difficult issues.

Too often, member states have warned against an increasing “politicisation” of the Human Rights Council and argued that it shouldn’t interfere on domestic issues. [See Iran’s statement at the special session -ed]. It seems to be too easy for countries to use these criticisms as an excuse for their human rights record not to be scrutinised. What’s your response?

The UN Charter makes it very clear that this is not a question of domestic interference, and we need to keep making that argument. We need to show when human rights are violated in one part of the world, that it actually concerns each and every one of us.

Then there is the question of selectivity and I agree, we need to be very careful that there is an evenhandedness. We have a lot of neglected crises, they don’t get the attention they deserve…

Then there are other issues that are also human rights concerns. The financial architecture that we have today, and the debt issues that are so unequal and have left so many countries behind, is a human rights issue. Climate change is a human rights issue, as are negotiations on the plastics treaty, pollution, and so on. We need to bring it back to those core issues that affect the lives of people, the interaction that we have among ourselves, but also with nature as a human rights issue.

You’ve mentioned addressing human rights in the 21st century and new frontier areas like AI, online privacy,  and the role of social media. Your recent letter to Elon Musk shows you’re already taking these on. Does tackling human rights concerns in these new fields require a different approach?

Our office has a very long relationship, especially with the human rights teams, with social media platforms, which is why, in the case of Twitter, we discovered what had happened. (Twitter fired thousands of employees in early November, including its human rights team. -ed.) We had an incident with our account so we contacted Twitter’s human rights team and that’s when we realised we couldn’t talk to anyone. So, yes, this is a very serious issue and I felt compelled to write an open letter to Elon Musk.

And it did not only get noticed by Twitter, by the way. Some colleagues reached out to us from Meta, for example, and other social media platforms because they sometimes have a very similar role within their own companies to make sure that especially those who work on the technological side understand that there are certain goals that absolutely need to be respected. But, with Twitter, we need to see what's going on. It’s an incredibly useful platform, of course, but we need to see what’s going to happen because it can go both ways. It can become a better tool or it can become a worse tool – so we need to watch it from a responsibility perspective.

What about you work in other frontier areas like science and technology?

Neurotechnology is an area that we are working on. There is a project at Columbia University on this where we have had some engagements. UNESCO has also done quite a bit of work on that as well. In fact, Chile is set to become one of the first countries in the world to introduce legislation to amend its constitution to protect “neurorights”.

The big human rights issues of the future will be precisely around issues such as artificial intelligence and human agency. And it goes back to the essence of humanity and human dignity. There are huge opportunities out there but also huge threats – and human rights provides a solution-oriented answer to them.

We’re here at the 15th anniversary of the Geneva Academy. What advice would you give graduates aspiring to work or already working in the field of human rights and other international organisations?

The most important thing is probably to look into politics and to make sure that you are the masters of your future. Because, we see that many young people are unhappy. They feel that the political system doesn't serve them anymore. And we see that, especially in many industrialised countries, they don't need to bother to participate in elections anymore because there is such a disillusionment with current politics. But it’s exactly the contrary that needs to happen.

So, I think it is our responsibility to first and foremost think about politics, but not politics in the traditional way. What I do is politics, and what you do is politics but we have never defined it as such.

The biggest challenges of our time, the triple planetary crisis, the big shocks, are not solved through short-term electoral cycles. So, there needs to be a much bigger vision of what politics is and by regaining the value of politics and political action, and frankly, social movements and social transformation.