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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with human rights expert Manfred Nowak, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture

Since the end of the Second World War, there hasn’t been a time with as many armed conflicts going on in world as there are today, blatant violation of human rights like the kind we see in Syria, where civilians, including children, are killed by use of chemical weapons. Everywhere we look, there is an element of massive social and economic instability. Evo News sat down for a talk about all this with human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak,  who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 to 2010. A former judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is the Scientific Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights. Nowak talked about how he came into this line of work, what he has seen and done for human rights and about the things that are happening in the world today.

“I was not interested in law as a child. My father was a chemical engineer and my mother was a teacher at high school, having studied German and English. I wanted to become a film director, to study film. My father wanted me to become a chemical engineer like him, so we kind of agreed I would start with film and law, something he could accept as a classical study, where I could earn a living. During my legal studies, I got more and more interested in political philosophy in particular, in public and international law and, of course, in human rights. After I finished my studies, I stated working at the University of Vienna in the Department of Constitutional law and I stayed an academic in the field of law specializing in human rights all my life”, Nowak said.

His first field assignment was in South America, after he studied for his Master’s thesis in agrarian reform in Latin America at Columbia University in New York. He travelled along with three colleagues in a Volkswagen all throughout Latin America in 1975. “It was beautiful, but also difficult because at that time, military dictatorships were taking whole of the continent. We analyzed agrarian reform in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Chile to find out what the real situation was”, he remembers.


Some of his most known work was as a United Nations specialist on missing people during the war in Yugoslavia in the 90’s. “That was difficult… it is still unbelievable how in Europe, 50 years after the Holocaust, another genocide could happen, how racism could so quickly escalate into ethnic cleansing operations and genocide. We had about 30,000 people missing in Croatia first, then in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Bosnia most of them being Muslims. My job was to find those missing people, ideally alive, but most of them had been killed. We started a whole process of opening mass graves in order to establish the fate and whereabouts of those people and giving them back to their families”, he recalls.

The Yugoslav Wars were a series of ethnically-based wars and insurgencies fought from 1991 to 2001 inside the territory of the former Yugoslavia, which lead to the break-up of the state. Often described as Europe’s deadliest since World War II, the conflict has become infamous for the war crimes committed, such as ethnic cleansing and rape. It was also the first European conflict since World War II to be formally judged as a genocide and many key individual participants were subsequently charged with war crimes. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people.

How was such a conflict possible? Has Europe learned nothing after the experience of World War II? Nowak says when people feel insecure because of major political change and economic uncertainty, they tend to turn to strong leaders and nationalists and fascists exploit that.

“I come from Austria, one of the countries that was responsible for what happened during World War II, as Hitler was Austrian. I was born after all this, but still, it was very present and Austria, that was always trying to avoid its responsibility, we were the first victim of aggression by Hitler, but Austrians were cheering Hitler in 1938. I did a lot of work to find out what had happened to the generation of my parents, why did they all of a sudden become fascists. There is something very similar going on now. The rise of fascism was a reaction to the weakness of democracy and not dealing with the high levels of inequality. People were feeling insecure, there was a big economic crisis in the 1920’s, people lost their jobs and if people feel insecure, they unfortunately turn to strong leaders and nationalists and fascists are exploiting that. People think they need a new authoritarianism in order to fix the problems, but in reality they have no solutions”, Nowak explains.

“We are in the deepest crisis since the end of World War II”

Comparing what happened then with the social-political context of today, though it may seem similar, there are a few new elements in place such as the development of technology that has lead to a new kind of warfare – cyber war, like we’ve recently seen with the hacked email scandals during the American and French presidential elections.

“I think we are in the deepest crisis since the end of World War II. In reaction to WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust, we developed a new world order based on the ideas of the United Nations, banning war. It was for the first time in history that armed conflict was prohibited by international law and the development of human rights. It worked to some extent during the time of the Cold War, but now we are again at a time when these values are no longer taken seriously. Since WWII we have not had as many armed conflicts as we have today, we’ve never had so many casualties either. Most of these conflicts are not international, they are non-international, but internationalized, like in Syria, where powerful international actors are involved. That can lead to a third world war”, Nowak believes.

The world now has many irresponsible authoritarian leaders today, he says. Europe was fortunate that Marine Le Pen wasn’t elected President of France and the upcoming elections in Germany look to have a favourable result, as Merkel is popular. The main problem for stability in Europe is Brexit, however. “It’s a disaster and David Cameron is to be blamed for that, he played with fire and he got fire. Theresa May is not a politician that is willing to make compromises. In any case, both the United Kingdom and the European Union will suffer economically and politically. The EU looses one of its most important members, perhaps it is better without the UK to form again a strong and coherent European Union, but it would also mean to fight against people like Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban”, the human rights expert says.


Europe also has to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, the refugee crisis as a result of the wars raging in northern Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring. Some analysts believe that the Arab Spring was a failure because it issued terrible civil wars like the one in Syria. “I think the Arab Spring was a very important movement because it was a human rights revolution in a way. Young people fed up with corruption, with authoritarian regimes like in Libya for more than 40 years, or in Egypt with Hosni Mubarak, demonstrated and fought for a new world order in their countries, based on democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, if the West would have had a powerful way of supporting these movements, perhaps the outcome would have been different”, Nowak believes.

Recently, satellite images have unveiled what American authorities believe to be a crematorium in one of Syria’s prisons, where thousands of people have been killed. This would be a way to get rid of genocide evidence. The war waged by Assad’s regime on his own people has included chemical attacks on children.

“This has escalated so much that we now see the most serious crimes you can imagine and they are committed by all sides against the civilian population. We have to stop this madness and the only way of doing this is to bring all the different actors together for peace negotiations. First thing is to stop the bloodshed”, Nowak says.

“The key to solving the conflicts raging in the Middle East is Palestine”

What is happening now in the Middle East is also a result of European colonialism and the key to solving all those conflicts is Palestine, Nowak believes. “If the Palestinian crisis would have been solved by Jimmy Carter, or later Clinton, it would have been different. There cannot be a solution between Israel and the Palestinians without the United States, the US are able to do it, but failed. If this crisis would have been solved around or before the Arab Spring, then the Arab Spring would have been much more successful”, the Human rights expert believes.

Another major problem in the area is the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been largely underestimated, Nowak says. “ISIS could never be so strong if there aren’t others that provide them with weapons. ISIS was developed out of Al Qaeda and that has a lot to do with the so called war on terror launched by President Bush, which was a totally wrong policy to react to 9/11. Terrorists are criminals, they should be fought by means of criminal law and not by the military and a global war. The Bush administration created many more terrorists than they actually defeated. The whole invasion of Irak was a huge mistake, it was a violation of international law. Today, we have a much more powerful terrorism scene in the world than we did in 2001”, Nowak says.

“The term ‘Islam’ has been misused and turned into a propaganda tool for terrorists”

In order to combat terrorism, first of all we must understand what makes these people turn to terrorism and fight it in accord with human rights, not against them, Nowak believes.

The surge of terrorism has also been associated with Islam and in Europe and America we can now see a surge of Islamophobia, most notably in the policy of the Trump administration that has banned Muslims from seven countries to enter the US. Some have asked whether Muslim culture incites to violence.

“I have doubts about this. Terrorism may be inspired by left wing ideologies, or by radical Christians or fascists. It is true that most terrorist actions in Europe lately are committed by ‘Islamic’ terrorist groups. These groups are misusing the meaning of Islam, it serves them as a propaganda tool, I don’t think that the leaders of ISIS are really devoted Muslims. Islam is misused. On the other hand, Islamic states have not done enough to fight terrorism by awareness raising campaigns.They should have been much more outspoken from the very beginning. They should have said that people fighting for the so called Islamic State have nothing to do with Islam, that they have misused religion. They are not fighting for Islamic values”, Nowak explains.

Probably the most known solidarity act Muslims across Europe did was after the killing of an 84-year-old priest by two armed men who stormed his church in a suburb of Rouen in northern France. As a response to the tragic event, Muslims throughout France and in other countries, including the Vatican, went to church on Sunday, for Mass, as a sign of solidarity and trying to remind the world that the actions of a few do not speak for the many Muslims who live in Europe.

However, Islamophobia in Europe is on the rise, as well as xenophobia. “The crisis is not the refugees, the crisis is in Syria, for which all the major powers are responsible. They are fleeing from crisis, it’s not the refugees who are the crisis here, it’s the European migration and refugee policies. One of the values of the Lisbon Treaty is solidarity. Nobody can tell me that one of the richest places on Earth, with more than 500 million inhabitants, which is Europe, cannot take one or two million refugees from Syria. We could take them in if we act together and implement a common European refugee policy, we need to abolish the Dublin regulation which is very unfair and we should create one common European asylum office and not have 28 different asylum offices in the member states. We should also create legal ways for refugees to enter Europe in order to fight the smugglers”, Nowaks says.

He also argues that Europe needs to take in immigrants because every demographic study tells us we are a dying continent because of low and negative fertility rates. “We need migrants in order to pay pensions for the next generation, in order to keep the economy going. Many of those refugees are well educated persons, we have an obligation to take them in order to balance our demographic difference”, Nowak says.

“The more influence religion has, the fewer rights women have”

Another problem we face today, especially in developing and traditional cultures, is the treatment of women. In many societies, like in Saudi Arabia, women have very little rights, they aren’t even allowed to drive cars. Also, in many of these cultures, there are a lot of ancient traditions like selling off women as brides, with no regard to their will or well being. “One of the biggest achievements of the international human rights movements is the rights of women. Looking back to the time the United Nations was founded, in most countries women still didn’t have the right to vote, or were not able to have a higher education, or own property. Women got their rights around World War I and World War II. I think the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women had a huge impact on empowering women to exercise their rights on an equal level with men. Of course, that can be a very long process. However, there are still major pay gaps in some countries, there is the heavy discrimination of women in places like Saudi Arabia. But, we have come a long way in implementing women’s rights as human rights. These rights always need to be fought for”, Nowak says.

This has only been possible in recent past because of the influence of the Enlightenment Age which fought the influence of religion, he says. “All religions are about male dominated, patriarchal societies. The more influence religion has, the fewer rights women have. If you have a state that is standing behind religion like an Islamic state (Iran, for example), it’s very difficult for women”, Nowak explains.

“Growing economic inequality undermines the social fabric and nurtures corruption”

Another problem that has been plaguing the world is corruption, especially in Eastern Europe. Nowak thinks that the West has missed a very important opportunity after 1989, after the end of the Cold War, to build a global society based on common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

„Unfortunately, the West, at the time, adopted the Russian consensus which really meant that there was no gradual evolution towards democracy and the rule of law. People in Eastern Europe were exposed to the most brutal forms of capitalism from one day to another. It meant that few people got incredibly rich very quickly, like the Russian oligarchs, and others got poorer than they had been before. This situation created a strong feeling of insecurity and had a negative influence on the development of the economy, but also the development of politics because it created organized crime. We have never had so much organized crime whether it’s trafficking in human beings or trafficking in arms, drugs or organs. I also think terrorism is a result of this, but also corruption. Today, corruption is one of the biggest challenges we have in the world”, Nowak says.

Because of corruption, the pay gap difference between workers and their bosses is immense. “Bosses in transnational corporations today have salaries that are totally irresponsible. Growing economic inequality undermines the social fabric, the social coherence and the social contract, the democratic values and of course, at a certain point, that will nurture corruption. Money rules the world and because of that, we lost all our other values like solidarity”, Nowak explains.

The constant race for money is what leads to corruption, he goes on to say, and it undermines human rights and democratic values. “The new human rights agenda is to see the link between human rights and corruption, but also to fight corruption as one of the main reasons of major human rights violations and the non-functioning of democracies”, Nowak says.

Ioana Nicolescu