In a first, UN rights chief seeks presence in India and China

Volker Turk, who took over as UN body’s high commissioner late last year, calls for greater political support to establish office in India and China.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Volker Turk
Volker Turk took over as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in late 2022 [File: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

The United Nations human rights chief has called for greater support for his office as he seeks to expand its work by establishing a first-time presence in the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, whose rights records are drawing more scrutiny.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), established after World War II and earlier known as the Commission on Human Rights, is present in 95 countries and its leader plays a key role in calling out suspected abusers as well as working with countries in question to bring about change.

Volker Turk, who took over as high commissioner in late 2022, used his opening speech to the Council on Monday to urge greater cooperation and singled out states such as Syria, Iran, Israel and Russia that should do more.

“We would now like to scale up engagement,” he told the Geneva-based body at the opening of its four-week session, saying the world was at a “critical juncture” 75 years after adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“I also believe that it is important for us to establish a presence for the first time in China and India, two countries which together comprise more than one-third of the world’s population.”

Indian activist Kavita Srivastava, who heads the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), told Al Jazeera India, which presents itself as the world’s largest democracy, should remain committed to the rule of law and human rights as guaranteed in its constitution.

“India should welcome any UN effort which aids in taking forward its mandate under Indian law as well as its responsibilities as a law-abiding member of the international community of nations,” Srivastava said.

“It should be an opportunity to put in place an international mechanism in the country of which India is a signatory.”

Turk voiced particular concern about attacks against people who cooperate with the UN and try to sound the alarm about rights abuses in their countries.

While he did not name specific countries, he did say his concerns included actions by a number of members of the 47-member council.

Council member China is among countries repeatedly accused of intimidation and reprisals by rights groups and non-governmental organisations.

“Attacks on people for their cooperation with the UN are a particularly insidious form of non-cooperation, and can have a chilling effect across the civic space,” Turk said.

While there was no immediate reaction from New Delhi or Beijing to Turk’s suggestion, setting up in China might prove difficult for Turk’s office.

Negotiations went on for years to clear the way for a 2022 trip there by his predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, spurred in part by concerns about Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. China denies any abuses.

The United States recently said it is monitoring a rise in rights abuses in India by officials. New Delhi denies the claims, saying it values human rights.

A UN rights spokesperson added that Turk had discussed the idea of the two new offices during meetings with governments but did not elaborate on their reaction.

Turk also said he would like to double his office’s budget to step up global monitoring. While human rights are one of the four UN “pillars”, alongside peace and security, the rule of law and development, it gets just 4 percent of the general budget.

He said he would like to see his staff more present “in humanitarian situations, which almost invariably trigger or greatly exacerbate human rights concerns”.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera her organisation would like to see an expanded and effective presence of the OHCHR in every country, including India and China, given the serious rights challenges in many parts of the world.

“But this will also need the concerned governments to commit to better human rights protections, acknowledging the harms, and ensuring accountability,” she told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies