On Thursday, September 8, the UN General Assembly confirmed the appointment of Volker Turk as the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as proposed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Although Turk’s appointment was adopted by consensus, there have been voices of warning and concern among civil society organizations at the international level, which did not hesitate to describe the process as “opaque.”
In two letters sent shortly after Bachelet announced his retirement, the NGOs called for an “open, transparent and merit-based process, including broad and meaningful consultation with human rights defenders and organizations,” but this did not occur. Phil Lynch, Executive Director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) stated that “the lack of transparency and meaningful consultation with independent civil society in the selection process means that the Secretary-General missed a key opportunity to build the legitimacy and authority of the next High Commissioner”
Regardless of the reservations expressed about the selection process, it is necessary to give Turk the benefit of the doubt and feed his office with quality inputs so that he can make informed decisions. The role of civil society organizations vis-a-vis the Office has always been one of constructive and purposeful interaction, finding more receptivity with some High Commissioners than with others. Let us hope that this new stage will be one of positive interaction.
It is no secret that there are serious criticisms of what Bachelet’s term was with respect to Venezuela, beyond successes such as her visit in June 2019 and establishing a presence in the country that same year. These criticisms pose important challenges for Turk, from whom a change of direction is expected that will allow him to correct the course.
There are several areas in which rectification will be necessary.
In the first place, the secrecy that has characterized the negotiations on the presence of the OHCHR in Venezuela must end. The letters of understanding that formalize the OHCHR presence must be public, and the entire process must be handled transparently.
Second, the OHCHR presence in the country cannot continue to be a bilateral issue between the government and the High Commissioner. Both donor states and national and international civil society organizations have the duty and the right to know, intervene and be heard in the decision-making process regarding the current presence in Venezuela and the future establishment of a country office.
Thirdly, and because of the preceding, the establishment of a country office must be the result of a participatory process, whose objective is a strong, autonomous office, with its own spokesperson and the capacity to deploy freely in the territory.
Fourth, the High Commissioner must ensure the restoration of the necessary balance between protection and technical assistance activities.
Fifth, watertight compartments in the name of an extreme interpretation of independence must end. In this vein, the High Commissioner must promote and facilitate the cooperation and communication of his Office with other monitoring mechanisms, such as the special procedures and the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela.
Last but not least, the High Commissioner must take advantage of the body of recommendations already formulated by the Office over the last three years to set evaluation parameters enabling measuring the political will of the government to comply with its international obligations on human rights.
To meet this agenda, High Commissioner Turk has the valuable experience of numerous national and international organizations, as well as associations of victims and relatives willing to share the information they handle and their knowledge of the country’s situation.