Who Is Volker Türk, The United Nations' Human Rights Chief?

The recent escalation of violence between the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force in South and Central Israel and the Gaza Strip — which has involved the mass shooting of civilians, large-scale rocket attacks, and kidnappings — has been met with widespread revulsion by the international community.

One of those to condemn the violence was Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights who condemned both the "horrifying mass killings by members of Palestinian armed groups" as well as the devastating rocket attacks by Israel on multiple targets in the Gaza Strip. In a statement, Türk called for both sides to defuse the "powder keg" of violence that has already caused the loss of thousands of lives and plunged the region into chaos, per the U.N. website.

Türk has had a long and distinguished career within the U.N. but has become especially prominent in recent months after taking on his current role, which is one of the highest and most respected in the organization and on the world stage.

A career dedicated to helping refugees

According to his U.N. profile, Volker Türk was born in the city of Linz, Austria, where he gained a Master of Laws at the university before pursuing a doctorate in international law at the University of Vienna. Focusing early on the subject of human rights — particularly those of refugees — Türk wrote his doctoral dissertation outlining the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the world stage, an organization he would spend decades working within.

With the UNHCR, Türk has worked in areas facing severe refugee crises, including Malaysia, Kosovo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to The Guardian. In his final role before becoming High Commissioner, Türk acted as Under-Secretary-General for Policy in the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General.

Türk seems to have dedicated his professional life to the cause of human rights. The Guardian reports that Türk has retained his copy of the Declaration of Human Rights, and he still carries the same time-worn document he first revered as a teenager. 

Türk's position at the UN

Volker Türk became the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2022, taking over the role from Michelle Bachelet, the former prime minister of Chile. As a January 2023 profile published in The Guardian explained, Türk's inbox was practically overflowing in the first few months of his new job. 

On top of crises in Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, and Ethiopia, which remain central to the High Commissioner's mandate, Türk's office must also continue to address the fallout from the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the displacement of people that the violence has caused. More recently, Israel's declaration of war on Hamas means that the Middle East shall remain destabilized and a region in which Human Rights are liable to be violated. Türk has also highlighted the urgent need to establish Human Rights in North Korea

Meanwhile, Türk has also been challenged regarding the office of high commissioner's stance toward China, whom Bachelet reluctantly identified as having committed human rights infringements against the country's population of Uyghur Muslims shortly before stepping down from her post. Critics claim that the U.N. has failed to take further action due to Chinese lobbying, but Türk has warily signaled that he is willing to face the issue, stating: "China is a very important country. We need to engage and we need to work with them," according to The Guardian.