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UN Human Rights Commissioner: From tech to ceasefires, a call for dignity and peace – Vatican News


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Following an audience with Pope Francis, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, stresses the importance of respecting international law and human rights, expressing concerns about the impact of technology on conflicts, calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East, and condemning the death penalty while advocating for a world based on human rights and dignity.

By Francesca Merlo

There are rules that apply in war, an international law that should be respected, even as violence is perpetrated. “Unfortunately, these rules are not respected.”

A “champion” of the cause

Volker Türk, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, talks about the importance of respecting International Law but also International Human Rights Law. But for this, the world needs to realise the right to peace.

This formed a topic of conversation between the High Commissioner and the Holy Father during their meeting on Friday, 26 January.

“The Holy Father is a champion of the Human Rights cause in the world,” Mr. Türk told Vatican News. “We discussed the conflicts ravaging our world, and we discussed the dangers of artificial intelligence,” he says. “We know that when you have social media platforms and generative artificial intelligence combined, this could actually have a negative impact on the democratic space because you will have the spreading of false news, fake news, of disinformation, of hate speech, and it’s really important to counter that.”

History vs AI

But this technology goes further than affecting speech and information. It makes age-old conflicts worse, creating paradoxical situations.

“We see wars that go back to 19th-century thinking,” says Mr Türk, making reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Likewise, if we look at what is happening in the Middle East, “if it’s combined with technology, the ability to do harm is multiplied.”

“And we have a very clear position on lethal autonomous weapons,” continues Mr Türk. “Lethal autonomous weapons are absolutely contrary to human rights law and they should not be used. They should be forbidden.”

Mr Türk reiterates the importance of constantly insisting on the normative framework that needs to be put in place. He thinks back to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “That was a promise for the world,” he says, but today we have over 50 situations of violent conflict.

Dehumanisation on both sides

Speaking of the situation in the Middle East, Mr Türk describes the war between Hamas and Israel as “an unmitigated tragedy”.

We cannot unsee the horrific attacks perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October, he says, noting that there are still hostages being held captive in Gaza. Neither can we unsee that since that day, “we have seen an incredible amount of counter-reaction by the Israeli army that has now led to over 25,000 killings, 70% of which were of women and children”.

In Gaza in these months, we have also seen the denial of humanitarian assistance, which simply “doesn’t come in the way that it should.”

We have also seen a warning of starvation. “I still have colleagues on the ground who tell me that they have lost their family members. And we hear that almost every day,” says Mr Türk.

The need for a ceasefire

What is incredibly sad is to see the way in which both sides dehumanise each other, says Mr Türk, and “I hope that those waging this war will come to their senses.”

This war does not only affect Israel and Palestine, “we can already see the tensions with Lebanon, and what is happening in the Red Sea, along with broader tensions in the region.”

The world cannot afford yet another war that is broader than what we see today, warns Mr Türk. It is clear that “we need to have a ceasefire.”

“Forgotten” conflicts

As the gaze of the international community focuses on conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, many others go unnoticed, despite them causing some of the biggest and most atrocious violations of human rights. Situations like Haiti, with its gang warfare, or Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria.

“These places are almost no longer in the news, and what worries me is that within conflict and violence, here too there is an inherent dehumanisation of the other, and the long-term consequences of war are terrible.”

Mr Türk clarifies that all violations of human rights always have a harmful effect. “We don’t want violations to occur under any circumstance,” but there are certain violations that can be considered worse than others.

“That’s why we talk about atrocity crimes, for example. We talk about crimes against humanity. We talk about war crimes. We talk about genocide. And there are very clear legal definitions attached to them. That is also why we have the International Criminal Court that looks specifically at atrocity crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

The fight against the death penalty

Turning to the United States, Mr Türk mentioned the execution of Kenneth Smith on 25 January. The death row inmate in the state of Alabama was the first person to die via nitrogen gas. The execution lasted about 22 minutes, and Smith appeared to remain conscious for some time. The man had already undergone his first execution attempt on 17 November 2022 after being subjected to lethal injection, which he survived because the executioners had failed to find the vein. 

“It’s cruel. That’s clear. There’s no other word for it,” says Mr Türk. “Frankly, the death penalty should not have any place in the 21st century.”

Mr Türk was referring not only to the US but all other countries that are yet to abolish this so-called form of punishment.

“The state should not exercise that power in that way. It’s not what is appropriate in this century. And we should really overcome it. I can only call on all those who have any influence over those who want to see this continue to occur that they use that influence to stop this practice once and for all.”

A slippery slope

“In my position as High Commissioner for Human Rights, we know that even smaller violations can lead to more serious ones over time,” says Mr Türk, adding that this is a slippery slope and we need to be aware of the beginnings of that slippery slope so that we prevent them from happening.

As over 60 countries approach general elections in the year 2024, the hope is that voters in all these countries take this vote very seriously, that they participate in the elections, “and that they take into account whether the parties’ programmes include respect for human rights.”

This, Mr Türk emphasises, is very important, “because we also see in parties a tendency towards extremism, a tendency towards dehumanisation of other people in the question of refugees, the protection of refugees, the protection of migrants.”

My hope, he adds, is that “if political parties are trying to promote an attitude that is not in conformity with human rights, the electorate takes this into consideration.”

The beginnings of a better world

“The old world is dying. The new one is slow to appear. And in this twilight, monsters are born.”

Volker Türk concludes by quoting Antonio Gramsci. This is the period of monsters, he explains.

“But we already see the beginnings of a better world, of a world that is fundamentally based on human rights, that is fundamentally based on respect for human dignity.” There is hope, he concludes, and we would be nowhere without that.

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