Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: ‘The far right uses migration to stoke fears’

The Austrian lawyer responds to the controversial statements of the British Minister Suella Braverman saying that human rights ‘are not a luxury,’ and argues that Russia is the main responsible for the crimes committed in Ukraine

Volker Türk ONU Derechos Humanos
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, pictured in a hotel in Madrid, Spain, during the interview.Samuel Sánchez
Óscar Gutiérrez

The role that Austrian Volker Türk took on a year ago is unfathomable; perhaps more so now than when it was created three decades ago. So much so that in recent months he has taken stances on issues like racism or the inequality in Spanish soccer. Türk, a lawyer by training, succeeded Chilean Michelle Bachelet as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2022. Although conflict zones have traditionally been the fertile ground on which his office has focused its operations, today respect for human rights also has to do with gender equality, climate, artificial intelligence… and immigrants. This is where this expert in international law, who recently visited Madrid to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the declaration of human rights, pauses during the interview—– held this past Wednesday — to make particular emphasis: “In Europe,” he says, “for the whole system to survive, we actually need migration.”

Question. We are still trying to understand the extent of the conflict in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you have any evidence of possible human rights violations?

Answer. First of all, what we have seen is over 100,000 ethnic Armenians who left Azerbaijan, who need to be taken care of in Armenia. The UN agencies are doing their utmost to support the Armenian authorities. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself we had a UN mission that went a couple of days ago. We don’t know how many are left [in Nagorno-Karabakh], but not many. Maybe a couple of thousands or maybe hundreds, but not more than that. It is important that we work, first of all, on transitional justice issues, accountability, and minority protection. You have to create confidence-building measures. One right that is very important is the right to return in safety and in dignity. Of course, voluntarily. We need to make sure that they build the conditions for people to be able to return. It’s their home.

Q. Do you remember a movement of people as vast as that from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia?

A. Yes, in Kosovo at the end of the 1990s, there was a mass outpouring of people fleeing. When the Serbian troops left, we also saw a return movement that was very fast.

Q. What is the most serious crime documented by your team since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

A. What we see is the commission of war crimes. The commission of willful killings, of disappearances, even attacks against civilian infrastructure. Sometimes it’s an electricity grid, for example, which has huge consequences, indirect consequences. You may not immediately see the killing of civilians, but if it is during the winter — and I was there, I was in Kyiv in December, it was extremely cold. It was -10 degrees [14 Fahrenheit]. There were people, especially in rural areas, who had no electricity, they hadn’t got water, and it was very difficult for them to move out. If you use military action against civilian infrastructure, which disproportionately affect civilians, that’s a violation of international humanitarian law.

Q. In many conflicts we are clear that there are violations of human rights, but not so much who the direct perpetrators are. Is it clear in Ukraine that Russia is primarily responsible?

A. When a country decides that the territorial sovereignty of another country is put in doubt and as a result launches an invasion, it is clear what international law has to say about it. The [UN] charter is violated. And if we see the methods of warfare that are used, yes, it’s absolutely clear that the aggressor is at the top of the list. And we have not seen attempts by the Russian Federation to hold perpetrators to account on their own.

Q. While Europe debates about immigration, thousands die or disappear in the open sea, and there are more and more pushbacks. Is there a setback in migration policies?

A. Each and every one of us has a background that brings us back to migration. Unfortunately, the far right in particular has used it for populism, to stoke fears and divide societies at the expense of the most vulnerable people. That’s the political situation that we are faced with. Underlying is also racism, identity politics and the grab for power. Of course, migration issues, refugee issues are complex, but precisely for that you need a clear head, and you need to discuss how to manage it, including how to make sure that the imperative of saving lives is respected.

Volker Turk
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, pictured in a hotel in Madrid, Spain, during the interview. Samuel Sánchez

Q. In the United Kingdom, Minister Suella Braverman said this Tuesday that supporting immigration is a “luxury belief” and that a “hurricane” of migrants is expected.

A. We have seen this many times. People say things that are not based on facts. Why do they do it? Because they want to stoke fears. And yet, we forget that all of us depend on human rights. Human rights are what connect us, the respect towards the other. We are celebrating 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We should be aware that that declaration has affected each and every aspect of our lives. Human rights are not a luxury. Human rights apply to each and every one of us and make us human. And it’s the tool to fight oppression, to fight inequality, to fight poverty. To fight the big issues of our times, like climate change, like digital [issues]. We need to remind politicians sometimes that history is important to remember.

Q. One of the most controversial reports of your predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, was the one that denounced abuses in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. What relationship does your office have with Beijing now?

A. When I became high commissioner in mid-October, it was important to find ways and means to talk to the Chinese authorities about follow-up and what we can do with the findings. I have had open channels of communication with them, including on these difficult issues. It’s important to get the time and the space to do it, and to see how it evolves over the next couple of months.

Q. In July, a UN committee asked Spain for an investigation into the deaths of 37 migrants crossing from Morocco to Melilla in June 2022. What response have you received?

A. Whenever these types of incidents occur, when people die, it is crucial that there are independent and impartial investigations because we need to learn from it. We must ensure that measures are in place to prevent this from happening again. We have been in contact with the Spanish authorities. There has been follow-up, and it is important to keep the focus on both ongoing and continuing investigations, but also on how to ensure that this does not happen again.

Q. Further south, the situation in the Sahel is worsening. Is it the biggest hole in the control of human rights?

A. There has been a rise in extremism. And when armies, for example, in Mali, behave the way that they do, it actually drives the population into the hands of the other groups. I’m very worried about Niger. I know President [Mohamed] Bazoum very well, and I was shocked when I saw what happened. He’s detained under unacceptable circumstances. We keep calling for access, but also for him and his government and all the other people who have been detained to be released immediately, and that’s not happening. And then there is Burkina Faso where, again, you have military and volunteer groups fighting against some of these terrorist groups. There is a saying in Africa: “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” That’s really what is happening in the Sahel. If people were able to get their freedoms… these countries have great potential.

Q. Are you concerned that the heavy-handed model of the government of Salvadoran Nayib Bukele might spread in Latin America?

A. The situation in a number of countries, especially in the northern part of Central America, is of great concern. Look at Nicaragua. Costa Rica has over half a million Nicaraguan refugees. It also has a lot to do with repression. Look at Guatemala. I’m very worried about the democratic process. I just hope that these elections are fully respected and that there is not an undermining of the judiciary, as we have seen. El Salvador has been affected by the establishment of an order by violence in ungoverned spaces. The maras and other groups formed a violent governance that is horrific for the people. There is a heavy-handed response, and we’re very worried about the prison conditions in the country, the continuation of the emergency decree. You can only address this phenomenon if you actually put human rights at the center, and if you understand the deeper reasons for it, the inequality, the inability of the state to provide for basic services.

Volker Turk
Volker Türk, during the conversation held this Wednesday in a hotel in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

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