Volker Türk, the U.N.’s New Human Rights Chief, Has a Lot to Do.

“It started very early,” he said, producing as evidence a faded, dismembered copy of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that he received as a teenager in school and still carries in his wallet.

“I was marked by the history of my country,” he said, alluding to the Nazis’ annexation of Austria and the country’s links to the Holocaust. “I’m still part of that generation that thought: How could it happen, that’s unbelievable, what can I do to search for a better world?”

A law degree followed in the 1970s, when, he says, he was impressed by the growing feminist and anti-apartheid movements. He then earned a doctorate in international refugee law, paving the way for his hiring by the U.N. refugee agency.

“I was fascinated by the fact that the U.N. can go into a situation and directly do something for people,” he said.

The refugee protection work also took its toll. Mr. Türk recalled how, in Kuwait after the first gulf war, he spent long hours interviewing Palestinian and Iraqi detainees and hearing traumatic experiences of imprisonment, sexual abuse and torture.

“You deal with it,” he said, “but it marked me a lot.”

Now, his ambitions as high commissioner include building a much stronger U.N. human rights presence on the ground and raising much more money for an office that is underfunded to meet the demands it faces.

The “biggest challenge” Mr. Türk foresees is to rekindle a global consensus recognizing human rights as universal and central to tackling the cutting-edge issues of the day, including the war in Ukraine and climate change. He pushes back at the “misconception” that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international human rights protections adopted since World War II, is a cocktail of Western values.

Human rights, he says, “cannot be the collateral damage of geopolitics and division.”

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