The new U.N. human rights chief said on Wednesday there was a worrying pushback against progress in easing rights abuses, above all on gender issues, pointing to Iran’s violent clampdown on unrest touched off by a woman’s death in police custody.
In his first media briefing since taking office, Volker Turk said rights had become a “battlefield” that threatened to paralyse progress and prevent people from airing legitimate grievances.
Turk, whose predecessor Michelle Bachelet drew criticism in some quarters for appearing soft on some governments when they were backsliding on human rights, also promised to speak out “when we feel our voice can make a difference”.
He takes charge of the U.N. human rights office at a time of turbulence in Europe over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as some of the most widespread unrest in Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The protests ignited by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 after her arrest for inappropriate attire have shaken Iran’s clerical establishment with people from all walks of life demanding wholesale political change.
Iranian leaders have blamed the crisis on incitement by arch-enemy the United States and other Western powers, a narrative few Iranians believe, and a riot police crackdown on protesters has turned increasingly deadly.
Turk pointed to what he called a pushback on human rights, especially with respect to gender issues, and highlighted to a “strongman mentality” and autocratic tendencies in a number of countries.
“The repression and the silencing of dissent is obviously, very particularly worrying,” he said.
“And it has also the impact in particular on women and the rise in misogyny and misogynist attitudes which I really hope we can overcome. I mean we shouldn’t even have to deal with that in the 21st century.”
He said the world needed unity and multilateralism to deal with challenges but instead was retreating into “groupthink”.
“And unfortunately, human rights is thrown into the vortex of these dynamics and has become a battlefield which we cannot afford and human beings cannot afford,” he said.
“So, I’m worried about the deepening of a politicisation that is not constructive. I’m worried about a polarisation and a polarisation that could even lead to paralysis.”
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)