UN human rights chief warns of 'heightened risk of atrocity crimes' in Gaza

Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says people in Gaza are living in 'utter deepening horror'

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk at a press conference in Geneva. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

The UN’s human rights chief has warned of a heightened risk of “atrocity crimes” in Gaza and said Palestinians in the enclave are being “collectively punished” for Hamas’s attack on Israel.

Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “no place is safe” in Gaza and those living there are experiencing “utter deepening horror”.

During a speech in Geneva to mark Human Rights Day on December 10, Mr Turk said: “Civilians in Gaza continue to be relentlessly bombarded by Israel and collectively punished, suffering death, siege, destruction and deprivation of the most essential human needs, such as food, water, lifesaving medical supplies and other essentials on a massive scale.”

He warned about the risk of disease owing to the absence of sanitation and overcrowding in the densely populated southern Gaza, where those in the north were forced to flee.

"Some 1.9 million out of the 2.2 million Palestinians have been displaced and are being pushed into ever diminishing and extremely overcrowded places in southern Gaza in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions," Mr Turk said.

"Humanitarian aid is again virtually cut off as fears of widespread disease and hunger spread."

Mr Turk said the “catastrophic situation” in Gaza, which colleagues described as apocalyptic, was “entirely foreseeable and preventable”.

“In these circumstances, there is a heightened risk of atrocity crimes," he said.

"Measures need to be taken urgently, both by the parties concerned and by all states, particularly those with influence, to prevent any such crimes."

Mr Turk also noted what he called "dehumanising and inciteful statements" made by high-level Israeli officials and figures from Hamas, which he said could potentially be viewed as incitement to commit atrocity crimes.

"History has shown us where this kind of language can lead," he said. "This is not just unacceptable, but a competent court may view such statements in the circumstances in which they are made as incitement to atrocity crimes."

He also spoke of the need to investigate claims of sexual violence by Hamas militants.

“As more information emerges, serious allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by members of armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, during their attacks on seventh and eighth October, it is painfully clear that these attacks need to be fully investigated to ensure justice for the victims,” Mr Turk said.

Israel-Gaza war two months on - in pictures

“It is crucial that there are rigorous investigations and accountability for all breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law. Individual criminal responsibility must be established.”

Mr Turk said the international community must speak with one voice to call for an “immediate cessation of hostilities and the release of all hostages”.

Mr Turk added: “All parties are aware of what is really needed to achieve peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis. violence and vengeance can only result in more hatred and radicalisation.

“The only way to end the cumulative suffering is [by] ending the occupation and achieving the two-state solution.”

His comments came after the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the UN will soon no longer be able to operate in Gaza, citing a conversation he had with Martin Griffiths, under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator.

Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, he said: “He informed me that, due to the bombing in the south of Gaza – with many victims and massive destruction – the UN won’t be able to continue operating unless there is an immediate ceasefire.”

In a statement, the UN’s World Food Programme said the recent seven-day pause in fighting allowed it and some of its partners to scale up relief operations, delivering food in locations previously impossible to reach, including some areas in the north.

But this “desperately needed progress is now being lost”.

“The renewed fighting makes the distribution of aid almost impossible and endangers the life of humanitarian workers,” it said.

“Above all, it is a disaster for the civilian population of Gaza, more than two million people, whose only lifeline is food assistance.”

Updated: December 07, 2023, 8:27 AM