Statements and speechesOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN Human Rights Chief visits Rafah border crossing with Gaza
08 November 2023
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk
Remarks at media briefing by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk following visit to Rafah, Egypt
Masa' alkhayr, good evening,
I have just returned from the Rafah crossing — the symbolic lifeline for the last month for the 2.3 million people in Gaza.
The lifeline has been unjustly, outrageously thin.
In Rafah I have witnessed the gates to a living nightmare.
A nightmare, where people have been suffocating, under persistent bombardment, mourning their families, struggling for water, for food, for electricity and fuel. My colleagues are among those trapped, and among those who have lost family members, suffering sleepless nights filled with agony, anguish and despair.
Gaza has already been described as the world’s biggest open-air prison before 7 October, under a 56-year occupation and a 16-year blockade by Israel.
The atrocities perpetrated by Palestinian armed groups on 7 October were heinous, brutal and shocking, they were war crimes - as is the continued holding of hostages.
The collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians amounts also to a war crime, as does the unlawful forcible evacuation of civilians. The massive bombardments by Israel have killed, maimed and injured in particular women and children. The latest death toll from the Gaza Ministry of Health is in excess of 10,500 people, including over 4,300 children and 2,800 women. All of this has an unbearable toll on civilians.
We have fallen off a precipice. This cannot continue.
Even in the context of a 56-year-old occupation, the current situation is the most dangerous in decades, faced by people in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank but also regionally.
During my visit here, I heard a lot of concerns about double standards in the midst of this conflict. Let me be clear - the world cannot afford double standards. We must instead insist upon the universal standards against which we must assess this situation - international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws.
And those standards are clear: parties to the conflict have the obligation to take constant care to spare the civilian population and civilian objects, which remains applicable throughout the attacks. The actions of one party do not absolve the other party of its obligations under international humanitarian law. Attacks against medical facilities, medical personnel and the wounded and sick are prohibited.
And aid needs to be delivered to all those in need. Egypt’s role has been key in many respects, and has been indispensable in getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza and for injured people to leave Gaza. But the aid getting through is a trickle, and with severely limited geographical reach. Israel’s own obligations as an occupying power also continue to apply in full, requiring it to ensure a maximum of basic necessities of life can reach all who need it.
People remain deeply vulnerable in all parts of Gaza. There is an urgent humanitarian imperative to reach the population increasingly isolated, including in the North and Middle Areas of Gaza, cut off from the very limited aid that is entering Gaza. Just in the last few days my colleagues have been receiving reports about an orphanage in the northern governorate that has 300 children in need of urgent help. With communications down and access roads impassable and unsafe, we cannot get to them.
In the last one month, Gaza has also experienced complete communication blackouts at least three times, cutting Palestinians in Gaza from their families inside the strip as well as the outside world. Blackouts have serious consequences on rescue workers struggling to find and rescue the victims of strikes, families trying to find out the status of their loved ones and to access emergency medical care, and for the situation on the ground to be monitored and documented.
Journalists trying to document and report on the situation in Gaza have been paying the price with their lives. At least 32 Palestinian journalists have been killed in Gaza in the last month.
Today at El Arish hospital in North Sinai, I met Ikram. Ikram was eight months pregnant when her abdomen was hit by shrapnel. She lost her baby and had to undergo a hysterectomy. She is alive but her eyes were lifeless. I also met Mohammad, 12, from Jabaliya, who suffered spinal injuries and bone fractures. Mohammad arrived in Rafah unaccompanied. He says he does not remember what happened, but the trauma on his face was clear.
What the extremists want us to do is to look at the world in black-and-white, with no perspective of the pain on the other side. We cannot let ourselves be led into this monochrome view of the world.
I feel, in my innermost being, the pain, the immense suffering of every person whose loved one has been killed - in a kibbutz, in a Palestinian refugee camp, hiding in a building or as they were fleeing, seeking elusive safety. We all must feel this shared pain, and end this nightmare.
I call – as a matter of urgency - for the parties now to agree a ceasefire on the basis of three critical human rights imperatives:
We need urgent delivery of massive levels of humanitarian aid, throughout Gaza.
We need all hostages held since 7 October to be released without conditions and immediately.
And, crucially, we need to enable the political space to implement a durable end to the occupation, based on the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis to self-determination and their legitimate security interests.
It is no longer enough simply to say the 56-year occupation must end. The international community needs to be part of finding a just and equitable future for the Palestinian and Israeli people.
They are each other’s only hopes for peace.
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