Volker Turk: Human rights must tick socio-economic, political boxes

Thursday May 18 2023

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk. PHOTO | AFP


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turker, who was in Nairobi for a meeting of all heads of the UN agencies, spoke to Fred Oluoch on the state and special place of human rights in Africa and on the globe.


What does your work entail?

The Office of the High Commissioner was created 30 years ago because the objective of the United Nations is the fulfilment of all human rights. The UN is not only about peace, security or development, but also about human rights. My role is to ensure we promote all human rights and also put spotlight in particular human rights situations in the world. I engage with governments and civil society on human rights issues to ensure that the world understands what human rights all is about.

Where you find blatant violations of human rights, do enforce your mandate through coercion or diplomacy?

We promote and protect people’s human rights. My office monitors and reports human rights situations by engaging with the institutions of the country, civil society and the ordinary people. It also involves documentation, reports, monitoring, engagements with the victims, establishing relations with authorities, and negotiation.


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What are your plans for Africa given that when you took over in October last year and your first trip was Sudan?

My first official visit was three weeks into office. I wanted to see for myself and be in solidarity with the people of Sudan, who in 2019, overthrew a dictatorship and young people were determined to fight for their freedom. I saw a lot of victims and I met several human rights defenders. I also met Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan and Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and I raised with them the issue of human rights, some of which were followed-up on while others were not.

What is the state of human rights in Sudan now?

My office had a strong presence in Sudan, in Khartoum, Darfur, Blue Nile States, and eastern Kordofan engaging with institutions of the state. But, even with a ceasefire, clashes continued, and left over 500 people dead. The toll could be higher because Khartoum has residential areas in the CBD and bombs in highly populated areas ensures many civilian casualties.

Africa experienced a lot of human rights violations by governments during Covid-19 such as lockdowns and restrictions of movement. How did your office deal with the issue?

Very early on, two months after declaration of the pandemic, we issued a policy brief to the world describing how human rights were affected because of the pandemic. For instance, in countries where emergency legislation was passed, we emphasized that it had to be targeted and also temporary. In some countries, such legislation was used to restrict civic space and political rights. Indeed, some countries in the global north hoarded vaccines supposed to be distributed across the world.

This region continues to experience conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, DR Congo, and Somalia. What is the level of conflict-related human rights violations?

Conflict and violence are always bad news for human rights. In 1997, I worked in Kisangani, DRC when there was a civil war. What I witnessed was traumatising. We need to understand that war and violence are never a solution, since nobody wins. There was a strong initiative by the African Union, Silence the Guns by 2020. Silencing these guns literally means that all fighting in the continent should stop.

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Before coming to Kenya, you were in Ethiopia. Has the Addis government agreed to implement recommendations by organisations on the human rights violations reported in Tigray region?

My office and the National Human Rights Institution of Ethiopia investigated and published a joint report in 2021, making recommendations. The ceasefire was signed in November, and we are in the process of following up progress on these, including transitional justice and accountability issues.

In Ethiopia, restrictions on access to humanitarian aid and relief were used as weapons of war. Have you seen witnessed such scenario elsewhere?

In many conflict situations the sticking issue is always granting humanitarian agencies access to those affected. You need to negotiate with all the parties of the conflict. In the DRC, for example we negotiated with all the armed groups to gain access. It has been an issue in Syria and Ukraine, but we must insist on unfettered access to the victims.

What’s your take on the high risk of environmental degradation or displacement of communities in Africa resulting from mining areas or infrastructural projects?

Last year, all UN member states recognised that everyone has a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. We must ensure that these rights are implemented because we are witnesses to environmental degradation and climate change in real-time. We must involve populations affected by the environment in the decisions that we take to improve their situation.

Human, especially child trafficking is a significant human rights issue globally. What is the situation in Africa?

In any conflict trafficking of arms, illicit substances, and also human beings are prevalent. We have seen it in Europe, Asia and Africa too, where we have seen Boko Haram in Nigeria using kidnapping, trafficking, and organised crime.

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How would you like to improve on human rights while in office?

It is important that we look at human rights from a comprehensive perspective. It is about economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. It is also about rights to development and the environment. The past civil and political rights model that skipped economic and environmental rights, was wrong.