Volker Türk is the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A long-serving UN official and trusted aide of Secretary-General António Guterres, he takes the role following a selection process shrouded in secrecy. His appointment comes at a crucial time of global backlash against human rights, with powerful states such as China and Russia defying international law and seeking to rewrite the rules of multilateralism for their benefit. Türk should stand as the human rights champion the world needs. To do so, he must engage with and defend civil society.

There’s a new face at the top of the United Nations’ (UN) human rights system. Volker Türk is the latest UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, taking over from Michelle Bachelet, who announced her departure in June after a single term.

Türk, an Austrian citizen, started out as a lawyer and became a consummate UN insider: having joined the organisation in 1991, he went on to hold a senior position in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and most recently played a coordinating role in the UN Secretary-General’s office.

He’s unquestionably highly regarded within the UN, evidently seen by Secretary-General António Guterres – the former High Commissioner for Refugees under whom Türk served – as a safe pair of hands who can be trusted to take over a complex and demanding role.

Many civil society groups that actively engage with the UN’s human rights processes in Geneva, and particularly with the Human Rights Council, will invest their hopes in Türk, engage with him and do everything in their power to make his tenure a success.

Civil society knows the stakes are huge. Türk comes into the role at a crucial time. Fundamental human rights – including the key civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, vital to civil society’s existence – are under attack in more countries than ever before. Powerful states, including China and Russia, are perpetrating blatant human rights violations on a vast scale. Civil society will look to Türk to stand up to the powerful as a human rights champion.

An opaque process

Türk’s appointment procedure was however far from ideal. Civil society called for openness and transparency: they wanted selection criteria to be shared in advance and have the opportunity to put questions to potential office holders. Ideally candidates would have been quizzed on their priorities and planned approaches to upholding human rights. Such a process would have significantly added to the legitimacy of the appointee’s mandate.

But none of that happened. The selection process was entirely opaque. Türk’s new role was simply announced following its formal approval by the UN General Assembly. It isn’t the first time Guterres has been accused of treating senior UN jobs as cabinet posts he can hand out to trusted aides rather than roles of global significance that require a transparent and inclusive appointment process.

For civil society, this signals that their views continue to be disregarded, still not given due consideration on important matters. More broadly, it’s a symptom of a bigger structural problem of lack of transparency in the UN’s decision making.

China a key test

Now the appointment has been made, civil society will be looking for early indications of what kind of High Commissioner Türk will be. They want the office holder to be a fearless defender of human rights, someone who always takes the side of victims and demonstrates a clear understanding that the role of the UN human rights system is to be the UN’s and the world’s conscience. The world doesn’t need another bureaucrat – it needs someone who embodies the larger purpose and mandate of one of its key human rights institutions.

Civil society didn’t see enough of that from Türk’s predecessor. Bachelet was accused of taking the route of quiet diplomacy with human rights offenders instead of challenging them and holding them to account. On the issue that dogged her term, China’s vast campaign of human rights violations in its Xinjiang region, she was often criticised for pulling her punches, apparently trying to negotiate with a state that was never going to reciprocate. China never acted in good faith in those interactions, and Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang in May 2022 was used by the state for whitewashing purposes, while Bachelet’s criticisms were muted. An institution that needs to be fearless instead looked rather timid.

The UN’s much-delayed report on China’s human rights abuses was finally released on 31 August, just minutes before the end of Bachelet’s term. Encouragingly, it takes its criticism further than the UN has done before, providing clear evidence of the industrial scale of rights violations being carried out in Xinjiang. It concludes these may constitute crimes under international law, particularly crimes against humanity.

After attempting to stop the report ever seeing the light of day, the Chinese state mounted a furious backlash, accusing the UN of spreading disinformation and lies for political reasons. The process of holding China to account will clearly be difficult, but the challenge must be faced. The report should lead to Human Rights Council action and ongoing monitoring of China’s human rights abuses. This will be the first and possibly most demanding test of Türk’s willingness and ability to lead the struggle for human rights.

A big agenda

But it won’t be the only test. It isn’t just about China. Human rights abuses must be called out wherever they happen and whoever commits them – even when it’s the most powerful states – and there must be proper follow up to collect evidence, listen to victims and hold the perpetrators and commissioners of crimes to account.

Where possible, the High Commissioner should act on the early warning signs of human rights violations and undertake preventative diplomacy, shaping and targeting interventions to stop abuses happening rather than reporting on them after the fact. This should include working to persuade states to welcome visits by the various UN independent human rights experts and special procedures mandate holders – and to ensure these visits are free to probe and shed light on human rights situations rather than, as in China, being co-opted to launder reputations.

Progress in realising human rights and calling rights violators to account won’t be made without a free and enabled civil society. As civic space is under attack globally, it will be critical that the new High Commissioner prioritises the defence and protection of civil society.

Türk comes into the role at a crucial time. Fundamental human rights – including the key civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, vital to civil society’s existence – are under attack in more countries than ever before.

The new High Commissioner should also be a champion of human rights within the UN. Human rights are supposed to be one of three equal pillars of the UN, alongside development and peace and security – but this strand is given far less priority than the others, receiving just four per cent of the UN’s regular budget.

Civil society’s hopes were raised in 2020, when Guterres issued a Call for Action on Human Rights, which promised to put human rights at the centre of the UN’s work. This was accompanied by UN-wide guidance on civic space. But little has happened since. And then when the UN published its Our Common Agenda report in 2021, many in civil society were disappointed. This plan for UN reform failed to reflect civil society’s substantial input to the report’s consultation process and largely ignored civil society’s call to make the UN more open and democratic.

In his previous role, Türk was charged with UN-wide coordination to follow up on the Call to Action and Our Common Agenda. He should be well-placed to take them forward now. To do so, he should lead a UN-wide audit to identify how the Call to Action’s commitments can be embedded in everything the UN does, and act on its conclusions.

Time to get started

Türk officially starts work next month. The tasks he will be taking on are huge. Multiple states are attacking international laws and undermining the idea and practice of multilateralism, while getting away with committing vile crimes. His success will be measured by how he responds to and helps combat these dismal trends.

As a UN insider appointed through an opaque process, the new High Commissioner will need to make friends. He should make it a priority to build strong, lasting relationships with civil society and listen to the people and organisations on the ground – those who work daily to defend the rights he has been entrusted to safeguard at the global level.


  • The new High Commissioner should commit to enhancing civil society’s role in UN human rights processes.
  • The UN Human Rights Council should hold a special session on the findings of its report on China and commit to establishing an independent monitoring mechanism on China’s human rights abuses.
  • The UN should commit to following up on the Call for Action on Human Rights and guidance on civic space.

Cover photo by UN/Jean-Marc Ferré