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Austria's Türk to lead U.N. human rights

U.N. career diplomat Volker Türk of Austria won approval from the U.N. General Assembly to replace former U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Volker Türk, then UNCHR's assistant high commissioner for protection, at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit
Volker Türk, then UNCHR's assistant high commissioner for protection, at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (AN/WHS)

United Nations career diplomat Volker Türk of Austria won approval from the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday to replace former U.N. human rights Michelle Bachelet, whose term ended at the start of this month.

The 193-nation assembly quickly approved Türk's appointment by consensus after U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres put forward his nomination. Turk said he was “deeply honored” to be appointed as the next U.N. human rights chief.

"I feel a deep sense of responsibility and will give it my all to advance the promises of [the] Universal Declaration of Human Rights for everyone, everywhere," he said.

Turk, who had been serving as undersecretary-general for policy in Guterres' office, takes over the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, which is responsible for the world body's promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms set out in the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Bachelet, a former president of Chile and human rights activist, stepped down as the U.N. human rights chief after serving a four-year term. She announced in June she would not serve a second four-year term soon after returning from a trip to China that drew widespread criticism, but said she had told Guterres months earlier that she wanted to leave the job and return to her family and homeland.

Since he was young, Turk has been motivated to try to make a difference in other people's lives and believes it is important to always maintain a sense of optimism and humility, according to a videotaped talk with the Global Executive Leadership Initiative posted online in late May.

"When I joined the United Nations, it was not just another job. It was really a vocation. It was a deep commitment to making a difference in people's lives," he said. "The background is, I was born 20 years after the end of Second World War. During my growing up, it was so important to understand the lessons from history. There was still this 'never again' moment in Europe and a lot of lessons to be learned."

'Lack of transparency and meaningful consultation'

The U.S.- and Swiss-based International Service for Human Rights which was less than pleased with what it called the "opaque nomination process" said diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York were notified late Wednesday night that Guterres would seek approval for Turk's appointment at a meeting on Thursday.

In all previous appointments, ISHR noted, the secretary-general's recommended candidate has been approved by consensus and without a formal vote.

"The lack of transparency and meaningful consultation with independent civil society in the selection process meant that the secretary-general missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next high commissioner," said ISHR's Executive Director Phil Lynch. "That said, we will seek to work closely and collaboratively with the next high commissioner to protect human rights, and to pursue accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims."

Türk, in his latest post as one of Guterres' top aides, was responsible for coordinating global policy work, including Guterres' "Call to Action for Human Rights," a seven-point plan for fulfilling the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

His earlier U.N. roles included stints in charge of strategic coordination in Guterres' office and as assistant high commissioner for protection in the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, where he helped to develop the Global Compact on Refugees, a 2018 global treaty that spreads responsibility for those helping refugees flee from war and persecution.

He also held a series of other jobs with UNHCR that took him to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo, Kosovo, Kuwait and Malaysia. Türk has a doctorate in international law from the University of Vienna and a master of laws degree from the University of Linz, Austria.

"Mr. Türk has devoted his long and distinguished career to advancing universal human rights, notably the international protection of some of the world’s most vulnerable people — refugees and stateless persons," Guterres said.

In his voluntary public disclosure of financial and other interests last year, Türk listed his editorial board memberships on the International Journal of Refugee Law and the International Refugee Law Book Series, and his financial holdings of an Austria bond and a Swiss investment account with UBS.

This story has been updated with additional details.