Un Rights Chief Calls For 'uRgent Reversal' To Civilian Rule In Coup-Hit African Countries

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk (Tuerk), right, listens to Chen Xu, left, Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of China to the UN in Geneva, prior to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk (Tuerk), right, listens to Chen Xu, left, Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of China to the UN in Geneva, prior to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
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GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. human rights chief called on Monday for an “urgent reversal” of military takeovers and return to civilian rule in countries in Africa where coups have driven out elected leaders in recent years as he assailed a multitude of crises across the globe.

Volker Türk's comments set the early tone for the U.N.'s top human rights body as he opened its fall session against the backdrop of conflicts and crises — including the plights of migrants from Myanmar to Mali and Mexico.

Speaking of the decade-old crisis in the Sahel region that stretches across North Africa, in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, he pointed to the impacts of climate change and a lack of investment in services like education and health care as factors that have fueled extremism.

“The unconstitutional changes in government that we have seen in the Sahel are not the solution,” Türk said. “We need instead an urgent reversal to civilian governance and open spaces where people can participate, influence a company and criticize government actions or lack of action.”

In his catch-all address at the Human Rights Council, Türk laid out a litany of concerns from “extreme gang violence” in Haiti and “nonchalance” about the deaths of 2,300 migrants in the Mediterranean this year, to the 1.2 billion people — half of them children — who now live in acute poverty across the world.

He criticized incidents of recent public burnings of Islam's holy book, the Quran, as "the latest manifestation of this urge to polarize and fragment — to create divisions, both within societies, and between countries.”

He floated the possibility of an “international fact-finding mission" to examine human rights violations linked to the deadly 2020 explosion in Beirut and backed creating the crime of “ecocide” under international law to boost accountability for environmental damage.

Among other things, Türk encouraged countries to enable women to choose to terminate pregnancy safely and cautioned that expedited deportations and expulsions of migrants and people seeking protection along the U.S.-Mexico border raised “serious issues.”

He warned that Russia's authorities continue to use the judicial system to silence critics, saying the additional 19-year prison sentence for opposition leader Alexei Navalny and 25 years for Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza “raise serious concerns both for these individuals and for the rule of law.”

He also urged for ”strong remedial action” by China over reported abuses against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region in Xinjiang, and decried detentions of rights advocates in the country.

Türk also expressed his concern about a proposed bill in Iran that would impose severe penalties for violations of the country's strictly enforced law on women's mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

His remarks came just days before the first anniversary of the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran's morality police allegedly over violating the dress code, and the nationwide protests that were sparked by her death.