Recent Speeches by UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner Volker Türk Discuss Human Rights, the New York Declaration, and the Need for a “Culture of Prevention”

Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, has recently given two speeches that merit attention.

Türk’s March 3 keynote address to the Fourth Humanitarian Congress in Vienna includes important language criticizing “externalization” policies that undercut international responsibility-sharing:

“A group of countries cannot pursue regional containment policies while expecting others, due to the sheer coincidence of geography, to have admission policies without meaningful or sustained support.   This is a recipe for resentment, non-cooperation, and a race to the bottom.  We cannot have two sets of scales for measuring our responses to refugee influxes or long-lasting refugee situations.  We cannot hold ourselves to one set of standards and others to another.”

It also provides an underlying vision for the Global Compact on Refugees (“States would share responsibility for refugees in a number of areas, for example in conflict prevention and resolution, linking humanitarian and development assistance, the development of safe and regular pathways, and engaging civil society in innovative initiatives to facilitate integration and build communities”) and takes note of strategies to “change the narrative” on refugees.

In a March 1 statement to the Human Rights Council, Türk notes the role that the judiciary can play in protecting the human rights of refugees (no doubt thinking of recent decisions in the US and Kenya):

“[T]he judiciary must serve as the enlightened bulwark against populism, short-term political gains, and emotional public debate.  Its role is to protect the rights of every individual – to rise above the fray and to be the voice of reason.”

He also cites Secretary General Guterres’ conviction that the UN must help foster a “culture of prevention.”

The move to “prevention” (what we in the business used to call attention to “root causes”) is an important shift for the UN (and UNHCR).  It will require effective and comprehensive work among humanitarian, development, peace-keeping and peace-building, and human rights organs of the UN, as well as coordination with member states and the NGO community. It is clear that the Secretary General intends to make this a top personal priority.

Volker Türk is UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, having previously served as the Director of the Division of International Protection from September 2009 to February 2015.

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