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From Gaza to Ukraine, accountability vital to end horrific cycle of rights violations: Türk

In an exclusive interview with UN News, Volker Türk, High Commissioner for Human Rights, underlined that accountability is key and a fundamental “missing link” in most conflicts around the world which simply perpetuates cycles of violence.

“It is absolutely critical that accountability is part of any future arrangement because we know that if impunity reigns, and if the facts are not told and if the truth is not told, we will have grievances going on and on and on,” he said, referring to the latest bloody cycle of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The interview also extends beyond the Middle East, shining a light on the ongoing war in Ukraine, where civilians also bear the brunt of Russia’s invasion.

Noting that bringing perpetrators to justice can be slow work, Mr. Türk highlighted the power of accountability mechanisms, drawing parallels to historical watersheds such as the Nuremberg Trials or the postwar settlement following the war in former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s, stating, “Once you have committed these type of crimes, you can never be sure that at some stage you may not be caught.”

In the interview, the UN rights chief also spoke about the danger of rising hate speech and rolling back of women’s rights, as well as the UN’s year-long campaign to advance progress on equal rights through the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Portions of this interview has been edited for clarity.

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks with UN News in an exclusive interview.
UN Photo/Mark Garten

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks with UN News in an exclusive interview.

UN News: We are now more than two months into the most recent escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, following Hamas’ horrific attack on 7 October and Israel’s response. We have witnessed week after week of horror. More than 18,000 Palestinians are dead, a large number of them children.  

You have expressed extremely grave concerns around the multiple, appalling violations of international law and you have called for an investigation. You are warning that no one is above the law. Can anything really be done to enforce international human rights law and ensure that humanitarian law applies to all Member States?

Volker Türk: First of all, it is an unmitigated tragedy, what is happening in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, but also in Israel, because at the end of the day it effects all communities.  

Of course, what is happening in Gaza is beyond devastating. I am outraged also that so many of our colleagues have been killed [135] from UNRWA, one from WHO. That our humanitarian system is not respected that we are not able to provide what we would normally be able to do in the situation of war, and that human rights and international humanitarian law are violated on a daily basis in the greatest of forms.

We know that if impunity reigns, and if the facts are not told and if the truth is not told, we will have grievances going on and on and on

It is absolutely critical that accountability is part of any future arrangement because we know that if impunity reigns, and if the facts are not told and if the truth is not told, we will have grievances going on and on and on. I hope that with the work that we are doing from the human rights side, but also what the International Criminal Court is doing, that the different mechanisms are doing, that this is actually going to help us overcome some of the accountability issues that we face in this situation.

UN News: So, what next steps do you envision and what you say to those who are flagging possible signs of genocide?

Volker Türk: We are going to continue documenting, reporting and monitoring the situation. I am very worried about the risk of atrocity crimes. I am very worried about the situation in West Bank, in particular, because what we see since 7 October, over some 271 Palestinians have been killed, including 69 children. I am worried about what this means in the future.  

I am also extremely, extremely shocked by the dehumanizing language that I have seen – both from Hamas but also from Israeli military and political leaders. Some of them have made comments that are utterly unacceptable that worry us a lot.

A scene of destruction in Gaza.
© WFP/Ali Jadallah

A scene of destruction in Gaza.

UN News: Turning to Ukraine. You have denounced the shockingly routine grave human rights abuses committed by the Russian forces to little or no practical effect, and there are several human rights mechanisms that are monitoring violations and publishing reports regularly. How do you keep a spotlight on another horrific war, one that has been grinding on for almost two years now.

Volker Türk: So, immediately when I go back to Geneva next week, I address the Human Rights Council and provide them an update on the situation in Ukraine. As you know, during winter, the situation is even worse because some of the communities, especially near the front lines have not been able to get access to electricity again.  

We have the ongoing killings, we have serious human rights violations, in particular torture, that is happening whenever the Russian forces are able to occupy territory. And yes, we just need to make sure that again accountability is going to be served.  

We have a number of mechanisms similar to what we see in the Middle East, accountability mechanisms that are being used and I just hope that they will actually serve justice, in the interest of all the victims.

UN News: The key is always accountability?

The key is accountability because it has been the missing link in most conflict situations around the world

Volker Türk: The key is accountability because it has been the missing link in most conflict situations around the world. And if you do not address accountability, you will end up again in war and conflict.  

UN News: So, then you would say that there is hope of ensuring due process in a war like Ukraine?

Volker Türk: First of all, the question is when that can be done. But we have seen in so many other situations, if you look just at Bosnia and the wars in former Yugoslavia, but also Rwanda and other situations, you actually see people having get caught.  

Even today, we still have national jurisdictions, universal jurisdictions that apply. And once you have committed these type of crimes, you can never be sure that at some stage you may not be caught.  

I believe in this accountability mechanism. We did not have it 75 years ago. We had it in the wake of the Second World War. And that system that was established with the Nuremberg Trials has helped us a lot to build up a system of accountability.  

I know it is not quick enough. I know we should have it everywhere and with the same intensity, but it is the beginning of something that is incredibly important.

UN News: And it is a process that you expect to build up over time as a deterrent?

Volker Türk: I think we have seen it to be a deterrent. We need to make the price of non-compliance much higher. And that is why you need accountability. It is part of the prevention as well.

A boy stands inside the remains of his school in Novohryhorivka, eastern Ukraine.
© UNICEF/Aleksey Filippov

A boy stands inside the remains of his school in Novohryhorivka, eastern Ukraine.

UN News: You are the High Commissioner in the year of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And you have reflected at length about the state of the world and what humans do to each other and to the planet. And you have called for it to change urgently. What do you say to those who have lost faith in human rights and that say that they only apply to some and not others, or that it is slow? 

Volker Türk: Yes, well, within the United Nations, we were born out of cataclysmic events. Two World Wars, Holocaust, the nuclear threat, massive displacement – you had in Europe alone, 60 million displaced. When we talk about figures today, you can see what it was then.  

Out of this came the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

And it was done against the backdrop of a horrific period in human history, and it was done precisely with this feeling of never again.  

And that is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has given birth to. We have seen over the last 75 years; we do not talk enough about the achievements – We have seen massive achievements on the human rights front. If you look at it from a historical perspective.

We have seen massive achievements on the human rights front. If you look at it from a historical perspective

Of course, there are also failures, but the failures are not the human rights system itself, it is the failures of implementation. And that brings us back to what Member States and their obligations are, but also increasingly businesses, private sector and non-state actors, more generally. And that is where we need to also put the emphasis on.  

UN News: How do you intend to have human rights taken more seriously? And can you give some examples of how they work or solutions of best practices on the ground? 

Volker Türk: I’ve just come from Geneva. We had a two-day high-level event to commemorate the 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And it is a minor miracle that against the backdrop of polarization and geopolitical tensions, we had over 155 countries making concrete pledges that are going to be transformative.  

For example, five countries pledging that they are going to abolish the death penalty. Fifty-four countries with very concrete suggestions on how to improve on gender equality, on protection of women. Fourteen or so countries that are going to establish national human rights institutions.  

We have countries that are going to adopt legislation to protect persons with disabilities. We have several countries who are talking about doing more on accountability issues and transitional justice issues.  

So, that gives me hope. With all the negative news that we have, we do see progress.  

We had over the last three years, seven countries that decriminalized same sex relationships, for example. We had two that unfortunately went the other way, but we had seven that decriminalized.  

There is progress. We must never give up and we have to persevere with our work.

A woman stands in the rubble of her destroyed home in Herat Province, Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Osman Khayyam

A woman stands in the rubble of her destroyed home in Herat Province, Afghanistan.

UN News: You mentioned gender and women’s rights – we see, from the Taliban to the rolling back of reproductive rights in some of the most so-called developed nations. How do you interpret the curtailing of women’s rights around the world right now?  

Volker Türk: We have seen a very worrying pushback on gender and on gender rights and women’s rights more generally. But let us also not forget where we have come from, and it is important to bear this in mind.  

What shocks me today is that things that I would have thought would not be an issue anymore, sexual and reproductive health rights, for example – or more, or just basic equality issues – that they would now become a question of debate.  

And I just hope it is an aberration that that quickly goes away. And that is why we need to fight for it, because we can never take anything for granted – that is one of the lessons learned from human rights.  

I think each and every generation has to own it, recommit to it, and find a way to push back against influencers who often have misogynistic attitudes, sexist attitudes and patriarchal attitudes that frankly should not have a place in the 21st century. 

UN News: And entire state regimes as well?

Volker Türk: And, in particular, if you look at Afghanistan, where you have basically a de facto authority that essentially systematically persecutes women and girls because of who they are. I mean, that is pretty much unheard of in the 21st century.  

Systematic persecution of women and girls because of who they are … that is pretty much unheard of in the 21st century

And we really need to find ways and means to stop this. But it is not just it is not just there. We have also very serious issues in Yemen. We have it in in many in, for example, Papua New Guinea, Iran and a few other places where indeed there is systematic discrimination against women.  

UN News: There is a plethora of country level elections planned around the globe next year, and we are seeing a massive erosion in principles of democracy and tolerance, polarization. And meanwhile, we are also witnessing a rise in well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns and a crackdown on even peaceful demonstrations. Can you tell us what your office does to support free, fair and transparent elections?  

Volker Türk: It is a great worry for us to see that with 70 elections taking place, with 4 billion people electing their new leadership. And at the same time, social media platforms that often perpetuate harmful disinformation, even incitement to violence and hatred.  

And for us, it is therefore and it is for the UN more generally, not just for my Office, for us in the UN, extremely important to detect early warning signals quickly and to act on it and to counter it, to then be in touch with tech companies who run social media platforms so that they actually do content moderation, for example, and that we counter through campaigns about the harmful effect that hate speech has, or disinformation has, on electoral processes.  

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk speaks to the press. (file)
© OHCHR

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk speaks to the press. (file)

UN News: You mentioned hate speech and hate. What do you say? We see an increased polarization, we see conflicts, we see the rise of antisemitism, Islamophobia. What do you say, for example, to those who before the conflict that we see with Israel and Palestine are feeling hatred rise within them?

Volker Türk: Hatred is one of those emotions that are extremely negative and unfortunately, it sells well. And there are sometimes business interests that drive hatred. And we need to cut down on that, we need to call it out. We need to show these business models.  

And we also need to find ways and means, again to bring humanity back to its core and to its fundaments. And I wish the messages of peace, of healing, of actually transforming hatred into positive actions gain more traction, both in media, but also in the discussions.  

We hardly discuss peace anymore, which is rather striking or about human rights as a transformative vehicle for a better world. I wish we would have more of this.

UN News: We have mentioned the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration several times. We are coming to the end of a year’s work, with two weeks of multiple events marking this anniversary. How do you feel coming out?  What has come out of these events?

Volker Türk: We have – as I mentioned before – we have these incredible pledges. I do feel, and sometimes it is difficult to communicate about it because we are in such a dire, somber moment in our history.  

Young people … they know what it means to speak and to feel human rights, and that gives me a lot of hope

But there is a groundswell of support for human rights. I see it among Member States. I see it in the private sector and above all, among young people. For young people, we know from different opinion polls that climate change and human rights issues are at the top of their agenda.  

We had a youth advisory group, we had hundreds of thousands of young people also participate in different events because of the Universal Declaration of Rights. And I can tell you – they know what it means to speak and to feel human rights. And that gives me a lot of hope. I see this positive force that can help us, you know, put human rights back at the core of what we are all about.

UN News: So, despite the current state of world affairs, you feel hopeful coming out of this?

Volker Türk: I mean, we can never give up hope and we can never give up our work, and I think within the tragedies of today, we can also see what the elements are that actually get us out of this, away from this precipice and let us be hopeful for a future that is more peaceful and more embracing of the other.

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