Volker Türk’s first speech falls short of activists’ hopes for a tougher stand after UN report on abuses in Xinjiang.
The new United Nations human rights chief has said his office has opened “channels of communication” to help follow up on concerns about the rights of minorities in the western Xinjiang region of China, including Uighur Muslims and Tibetans.
In a highly anticipated address on Tuesday, which marked the first presentation of the office’s annual report since he took office in October, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk noted that his office had called for a “concrete follow-up” on abuses including arbitrary detentions and family separations in Xinjiang.
“We also have concerns about the severe restriction of civic space more generally, including the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and lawyers, and the impact of the national security law in Hong Kong,” he said.
Türk has been under pressure from Western nations and rights organisations to take a firm stand on Xinjiang following a bombshell report published in August by his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, which cited possible crimes against humanity.
His remarks fell short of activists’ hopes for a stronger message to Beijing. The former head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said that Türk had “mouthed not a word of criticism of China”.
“He offers only quiet diplomacy – ‘we have opened up channels of communication’ – as if he has any leverage besides the public reporting/condemnation that he abandons,” Roth tweeted.
In his big speech to the UN Human Rights Council, UN rights chief @Volker_Turk says, “I am deeply concerned” about abuses in Russia and Iran, but on Xinjiang, he impersonally states “my Office has documented grave concerns,” referring to his predecessor. https://t.co/UOSiQDJxE6
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) March 7, 2023
Türk’s speech marked the first presentation of his office’s annual report since he took the helm in October. It covered an array of concerns – such as women’s rights, discrimination, conflict and climate change – in a sweeping number of countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia.
He also highlighted Russia’s war in Ukraine, the continued fighting in Syria and instability in Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as the crackdowns on dissent, free expression and political activists in parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
Türk further cited reports of “excessive use of force, racial profiling and discriminatory practices by police – most recently in Australia, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom”.
He said he was “deeply concerned by multiple trends” in Russia such as the closure of the offices of independent media and activist groups, and “constant” pro-war messages on state media that “feed stereotypes and incite hatred and violence”.
Advocacy groups had called on Türk to first and foremost take a firm stand on China.
Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, said last month that Türk should “publicly put his weight” behind Bachelet’s report and include in the council session “a significant brief on Xinjiang that reflects the gravity of the findings” of the UN rights office.
“It will be an important message in many ways,” she told the ACANU press association. “I think the high commissioner will be very much judged by his willingness and his courage to stand up to China and other superpowers.”