Two firsts in a week

On Wednesday (November 2), the newly-installed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk held his first briefing before the press. And on Monday (October 31), Gilbert Houngbo, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) new boss, gave his first speech to the organization’s governing body, during which Houngbo outlined his key programmatic and office restructuring priorities.


Volker Turk, the new UN human rights chief, gave a sold-out maiden press performance yesterday (November 2) at the Palais Wilson, home of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Expectations had been high after months of controversy and internal turmoil at OHCHR, and the change in tone was immediately perceivable. The still untested Austrian was firm on principles but also showed himself as a no-nonsense, engaging personality.

Turk spent almost an hour fielding reporters’ questions, addressing the most sensitive one head-on without being defensive. There was no mincing of words when denouncing the UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s rhetoric describing migrants on small boats making it to the UK as “an invasion on our southern coast.”

“Invasion: horrible word,” he stated bluntly. “It absolutely is the problem that we often see. I know that very well from my previous position—I lived through this in 2015 and 2016 when I was Assistant High Commissioner for Protection [at the UN refugees agency (UNHCR)]; the types of words and dehumanizing language that I have heard from European politicians during that period is harrowing.” He added, “We will really have to work very strongly [to ensure] that it doesn’t poison and add fuel to the fire on issues that are about human beings. And I’m glad that there is a strong reaction in Britain to that use of the word.”

Without naming any country, Turk also expressed deep concern about the persistent efforts to reverse the rights of women and girls in many countries, describing the trend as “a very worrying pushback, and [one] that affects women and girls in many parts of the world in a way that is unparalleled.”

More broadly, he denounced the shrinking of public space and quashing of dissent in many countries, saying that “the repression and the silencing of dissent is obviously, very particularly worrying. […] I’m worried about the deepening of a politicization that is not constructive. I’m worried about a polarization that could even lead to paralysis.”

Speaking about the current tense geopolitical situation, Turk deplored the fact that “unfortunately, human rights have been thrown into the vortex of these dynamics and have become a battlefield which we cannot afford, and human beings cannot afford.”


With his headline initiative—a new Social Justice Coalition—Houngbo, the first African to lead the organization, is looking to place a distinct marker on his administration. Although short on specifics at this point, this Coalition has been conceived as a vehicle for outreach, influence, and policy coherence beyond the traditional ILO tripartite constituency of governments, workers and employers. It signals an apparent appetite for boldness and risk-taking in an organization that is not generally known for either.

On the office structure, not really a major shake-up: one yet-to-be-named Deputy-Director General instead of the previous three; four organizational clusters headed by Assistant Directors-General, and a firm commitment to gender parity in senior positions.

So far, the pace of senior management appointments seems rather leisurely. Informed sources tell us that this should pick up shorty. Houngbo’s proposal to discontinue the quadrennial regional meetings in their current form and redeploy those resources to field offices and programs will also get scrutiny from GB members.

Everybody loves a good soccer game. But clearly Houngbo could not sidestep the continued labor rights problems in Qatar on the eve of the 2022 World Cup. While the ILO’s development assistance program with the Government of Qatar, begun in 2018, has helped bring about significant changes to law and practice—in particular, the slavery-like practices of the “kafala” sponsorship system that limited the freedom of migrant workers to change jobs and leave the country—there is still a long way to go, as recent reports from human rights groups attest.

D-G Houngbo appears willing to double down on ILO technical support to Qatar with the potential opening of a regular ILO office in the country. We’ll put that under the heading of “constructive engagement.” ICYMI, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, revealed a few days ago that Qatar organized a massive surveillance operation on FIFA’s executives.