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Top U.N. Human Rights Official & Fmr. Swedish FM on Palestine, Sudan & U.S. Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

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On Friday, July 14, Amy Goodman moderated a wide-ranging panel on human rights in Venice, Italy, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The panel’s speakers included United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and Eamon Gilmore, the European Union special representative for human rights. They discussed the U.S. sending cluster bombs to Ukraine, the war in Sudan, Palestine, as well as the role of civil society and the media in elevating human rights issues.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

“Towards a New Era for Human Rights.” That was the name of a two-day conference held this weekend. On Friday night, it was held at the historic UNESCO building in Venice, Italy. The conference was organized by the Global Campus of Human Rights and Right Livelihood to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the historic World Conference on Human Rights, which was held in Vienna in 1993.

On Friday, I moderated a panel on the global state of human rights, looking at the recent U.S. decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine, looking at the war in Sudan, as well as Palestine, the role of civil society in elevating human rights issues, and the role of the media. Speakers on the panel included Volker Türk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights; Eamon Gilmore, the European Union special representative for human rights; and the former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström. She was also the former deputy prime minister of Sweden, the former head of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party and the former U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict. While she was foreign minister in 2014, Sweden became the first member of the European Union to recognize the state of Palestine. I asked her about how Sweden made that decision.

MARGOT WALLSTRÖM: That could not have come as a surprise. We had that — my party has fought for this for a very long time, has promised this in our sort of programs and all of that, so it was part of our sort of declaration when we took office as the new government. And then, of course, yeah, things could have been maybe phrased in a different way to give us a little bit more time, if you look back at things that could have been done differently. But the main issue would not have come as a surprise to anybody.

But the response was, of course, to make us an example, a bad example, so that they would scare anybody else from doing something similar, from other countries from following our example. I know this for a fact, how this worked, for example, in the European Council. So, this was what happened all the time, that the Israelis used us as a scare, as a scare so to make sure that nobody else followed in the European Union.

And it was a very, very tough decision. We made it clear that we had no interest in making sort of Israel our enemy. We wanted to continue to work with Israel for a two-state solution, which is the decision and the position of the European Union. But, of course, this was extremely tough. And I think that — well, I have experienced this throughout my years as the foreign minister, that when you — if you’re courageous, as I see it, if you take a position, if you follow, if you’re consistent, you have to pay a price for it. That is absolutely. But without that, things would not move. We would not see an advance for human rights. So somebody must take a first step sometimes.

AMY GOODMAN: And related to this — and this could be to you or to any of the people on the panel — is the issue of cluster bombs, the use of cluster bombs, something the United States said last year, a year ago, is what distinguished Putin from them, was that he was willing to use cluster bombs, and the shock of so many when President Biden said that they will send cluster bombs to Ukraine, I mean, talking about everything from human rights to the destruction to the environment. Your thoughts?

MARGOT WALLSTRÖM: Yeah. Well, this is very bad and very sad. And I really hope — well, one would hope that the Ukrainians would say that this is not sort of in our best interest, either. But on the other hand, they ask for everything they can put their hands on right now, because they want to win the war. But it is also very bad and very sad that the U.S. thinks that this is the best help they can give to Ukraine, to send cluster bombs. I mean, I think there has to be a public opinion, and there has to be a debate about this, that takes it further. That’s what I’m hoping for.

AMY GOODMAN: Would anyone else like to weigh in on that? Do you see this as a turning point, where so many countries, more than a hundred in the world, have signed on against the use of cluster bombs, and now one of those countries, the United States, who isn’t a signatory, along with Russia, along with Ukraine — none of them are — decide that they’re going to move forward on this, what this means for the direction of the world at this point?

EAMON GILMORE: Well, I’d be very — I’d be very plain on this. I don’t think the United States should have made that decision. I don’t think that — I don’t think cluster bombs should be used in Ukraine. I think we — as Margot says, it is a sad reality that such huge amount of resources are being deployed to provide weaponry to Ukraine to enable them to prevail against this war of aggression. But I must say I was surprised, and I don’t agree with the decision to provide cluster bombs to Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eamon Gilmore, European Union special rep. for human rights.

VOLKER TÜRK: Hello. I’m Volker Türk.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Volker Türk.

VOLKER TÜRK: I’m the high commissioner for human rights. And I was actually at —

AMY GOODMAN: This is Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

VOLKER TÜRK: Amy Goodman, look, hi. No, I just want to say something about this, because you asked — I was actually asked the question at the Human Rights Council two days ago during an interactive dialogue on Ukraine. And our position is clear: I mean, cluster bombs should be prohibited. They have an indiscriminate effect on civilian populations. Both Russia, Ukraine, U.S. hasn’t signed the treaty, which is unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean — but that doesn’t mean — sorry. OK, does this work?

No, I just — what I just mentioned, at the Human Rights Council, we had an interactive dialogue on Ukraine two days ago, and I got that question: What is the position of the U.N. in relation to cluster ammunition and the use of cluster bombs? And it’s obvious that it has an indiscriminate effect on civilians. Unfortunately, the bomblets will stay for probably generations to come, so people will live with it. It is true that Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. have not signed the treaty, but that doesn’t mean, under human rights law, that we couldn’t argue against it. And it’s clear, because any indiscriminate effect that ammunition has on civilians should not be used.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to the U.S. government about this, President Biden?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, I don’t speak to President Biden, but we have made it very clear publicly. The secretary-general, as well, not just us from the human rights side.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see this war ending?

VOLKER TÜRK: I mean, I think it is important to think about the day after. And I was in Ukraine in December, beginning of December. And, you know, I met a lot of civil society actors, human rights defenders, victims. And one thing that became very clear, that the whole civil society is involved no longer in the typical work that you do on the human rights front, but they are all involved in the humanitarian response. So you see a shift away from the work that they did before, focusing on vulnerable people, people with disabilities, older people, institutionalized — horrible institutionalized care arrangements for children, the corruption issues, the lack of independence of the judiciary and all of those issues. They are not — they can’t focus on it now, because — obviously, because of their national survival.

But I think it is very important that everyone who supports Ukraine has to support Ukraine of the future, which means all of the type of issues — rule of law, independent judiciary, support for the prosecutor general — but in line with international standards. And that’s going to be a big, big — so, reconstruction cannot just be a logistical exercise. It also has to be an exercise of — it has to be guided, inspired by human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you hopeful?

VOLKER TÜRK: Hope springs eternal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do our work.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just — well, you just heard me talking to the former foreign minister of Sweden about Palestine and the position Sweden took early on. You also just took a position demanding that Israel take its occupation — that it has legal obligations as an occupying force in Palestine. Can you comment on that as the U.N. high commissioner of human rights?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, obviously, it’s a very complex situation. And, I mean, my first speech to the council in March, when there was a specific discussion on it, highlighted the fact that, you know, my office on the ground issues a report every couple of months on the situation, describing what is happening. We make recommendations again and again and again — to both sides, by the way. And that’s also important. And we miss a serious effort to look at these recommendations and to implement them. And that’s really a problem.

And we need to find ways and means that both parties are able have back channels, talk to each other, find ways to deescalate. But what we see is an escalation. We are in this — I call it the illogic of escalation, because it’s not a logic. It’s an illogic of escalation. So, whoever has any influence needs to find ways and means to deescalate, deescalate, deescalate, and find a way to think, again, also about their future.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Israel is the occupying force. Palestine — though Israel isn’t a signatory to the International Criminal Court, Palestine is. Do you think Israel should be brought before that court?

VOLKER TÜRK: I’m not — you know, I mean, of course, accountability is important. It starts at home. So, if war crimes are committed, they need to be investigated. That’s also one of the recommendations that we consistently make to the Israelis, but also to the other side. They need to investigate. Sometimes it happens, but it doesn’t happen with the seriousness that is required.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me just ask you, because you just came in. You just made —

VOLKER TÜRK: Sorry for that. It’s —

AMY GOODMAN: — a very —

VOLKER TÜRK: Travel in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: No, but you — I didn’t mean you just — that you were late. I meant that because you just came in, this is such an opportunity. But what’s happening right now in Sudan, you just made a major statement about, and this mass grave that was discovered in Darfur. Can you talk about that?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, you know, I went — Sudan was the first country that I visited after I took office, within three weeks. And I met both Burhan and Hemedti, both the two warring men, because they are men. They are warring parties, and we concentrate always on them, right? We talk about these two men that are waging a war against each other. Totally irresponsible.

I had a lot of hope. I was so inspired by what I saw from the Sudanese population that I met. I mean, I met so many human rights defenders, the victims, I mean, young people, these resistance committees that were established. In fact, I was — it’s incredible that despite the fact that there was a second coup in October '21 for a year with brute force, young people, women and the population, in particular in Khartoum, resisted the onslaught of repression from the military, because I think they have had enough of what happened during al-Bashir, al-Bashir's time, and they just wanted to get rid of it, right?

And then you have these two men, when we were so close towards a civilian transition, to blow it up, to blow up the country. It has a lot to do with geopolitics, I have to say, because in the past certain things probably would have been much more difficult to achieve. I mean, they would have had — there would been more control over certain things. Now it’s a free-for-all. And they benefit —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by geopolitics?

VOLKER TÜRK: Look, we have U.S.-China, West-Russia, West-Global South. So it’s chaotic, the Security Council. I mean, when we had a special session on Sudan in the Human Rights Council, there was a group of states that said we shouldn’t discuss Sudan in the Human Rights Council, which should — because we shouldn’t discuss country mandates. Well, if there is a situation to be discussed, it’s obviously any new situation that emerges.

So it was really quite remarkable how we don’t come back to the basic consensus that the world had in the wake of the Second World War, after the cataclysmic events, with the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And we need to be striving and going back to the past in order to be able to deal with the future. And so, yes, when it comes to Sudan, a big issue was accountability and transitional justice, that wasn’t coming in quickly enough. You saw Karim Khan, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, gave a speech to the Security Council yesterday, and he will start investigations.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was found, the mass grave in Darfur?

VOLKER TÜRK: So, we had interviewed people, because we are no longer present in Darfur, because it’s impossible. But we have teams in Chad who interviewed refugees who came over, and that we could, as a result, identify and do our typical methodological thing to identify what had actually happened. And, yes, it was — I mean, the RSF and the militias and the mass elite are campaigning for — I mean, there’s ethnic cleansing taking place as we speak.

AMY GOODMAN: In all of the meetings that have been taking place, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, around this, one of the issues that civil society keeps raising are where are they at the table. And they feel that we wouldn’t even be at this point with Sudan if they were included. And then, if you could comment on that, and then, as we begin to wrap up this panel, for everyone, the role both of civil society, how important that is even in you doing your job, what becomes acceptable to say and what isn’t, and the role of the media?

VOLKER TÜRK: No, I mean, Margot, when you were in the position of special representative on sexual violence and conflict, I mean, one of the big achievements of the Security Council was women, peace and security, you know, this decision that when it comes to peace processes, there needs to be a conscious effort to bring women onto the negotiating table, to include them so that they are part of it.

We did — every year, we do an analysis of how many of the peace negotiations — I mean, I don’t know if you remember. Very early on, when the Russians and Ukrainians sat down, beginning of March, did you notice the — did you remember the picture? On both sides, only men. Only men. In both negotiating teams, it was only men.

And I think it is so important, because each and every conflict, when we emerge from it, when there is peace negotiated, it’s always the warring factions that discuss it. It’s not the whole of civil society. I mean, South Sudan is another example. So we have all these different issues where there wasn’t an inclusive participatory effort to bring everyone around the table to discuss these things. It was always left to those who waged the war. And we really need to fight back on this. That’s absolutely critical. And, you know, Sudan is a good example. It was led by young people. It was led by women, very courageous women. It was led by those who just had enough of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, where are they now, when it comes to the formal negotiations?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, there are no formal — I mean, to be honest, not very serious ones at the moment. I don’t think these two guys are serious about it. They think that they can win on the battlefield, and they will bring the country to the brink — well, it’s already close to the brink, so I don’t know how deeper it can go.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the media?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, of course, it is — well, if you look — I’ll just give you one example. If you look what — I mean, it is so crucial that we have independent, serious media that report on these situations, and that they bring them to the table of everywhere in the world. If I look at even mainstream media today, I’m very disappointed. I mean, just to give — and I know it’s a sensitive thing to raise, but just look at what happened. We had, within a week, the sinking of the boat in Greece and then the submarine with the Titanic. Just watch how much attention was paid to the submarine. I think it was almost minute by minute. And the probably 800 people that died, horribly, it was maybe a day, maybe another news sometime else. And if that had happened — if it had been a plane, if it had been, this would be what? Four planes crashing? Can you imagine what this would have meant? So there is an interesting dimension to how media report about what I think is very selective.

AMY GOODMAN: At Democracy Now!, we called it the “Titanic disparity.”

VOLKER TÜRK: That’s how you called it? Yes, exactly. I’m glad you think about that, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we have to wrap up. And this has been a fascinating discussion. Are there any final words you’d like to offer?

VOLKER TÜRK: Well, we will have a continuation of our discussions tomorrow. But I think one thing that for me is so important, that we — and I sometimes feel it with politicians these days — they forget about history, or they don’t really want to know much about history. I don’t know whether, Margot, that was also your experience, especially some of the younger generations. History is sort of put somewhere else. Sometimes it’s not even known.

And we really need to know about it. And we need to know what the genesis is of the type of achievements that we have had, also on the human rights side. And we should be so grateful for what the human rights movement has achieved over the last 100 years — of course, actually, even in the 19th century, with the labor movement. I mean, you have so many different movements, decolonization. I mean, you have all these movements. Well, it starts with some of the revolutions.

And that actually gives me a lot of hope that the big issues of our time and of the future, we are able to do it again through the human rights lens, because it brings us back to what unites us. It brings us back to what is a solution. It’s not just the doom and gloom; it is a solution to problems. And, yeah, and we just need to find, well, a new era, right? We have to think about human rights for the new era. But it is human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Volker Türk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights; Eamon Gilmore, the European Union special representative for human rights; and Margot Wallström, the former Swedish foreign minister. She was also the former deputy prime minister of Sweden and the former head of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, as well as the former U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict. They were speaking this weekend at a conference I moderated in Venice, Italy, talking about a new era for human rights, the conference organized by the Global Campus of Human Rights and Right Livelihood to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the conference ended, thousands of Venetians went out in boats — we joined them — to celebrate the city’s oldest holiday, marking the end of the 16th century plague, the pestilence, that killed a third of Venice’s population. There was a half-hour fireworks display as people celebrated. I’m Amy Goodman, back in New York. Thanks for joining us.

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