UN rights chief warns about rise of far-right in Europe

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Wednesday called for vigilance in the face of far-right political gains in Europe, citing narratives that dehumanise migrants and asylum seekers.

"We need to be very vigilant because especially history tells us, in particular in Europe, that the vilification of the other, that the denigration of the other, is a harbinger for what's to come," Volker Turk told reporters at a press conference in Geneva. "It's an alarm bell we need to ring."

Far-right parties made gains in the European Parliament last month and France is holding a run-off election this weekend where opponents of its far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally are seeking to block them from power.

As an Austrian, whose country became a hotbed of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and participated in the Holocaust after its annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, Turk has previously cited a desire to prevent future atrocities as part of his inspiration to run for the top U.N. rights job.

Formerly a senior official at the U.N. refugee agency, Turk fought for years to boost their protections.

"In Europe we have unfortunately seen an increase in hate speech, an increase in discriminatory speech, and it's important that political leaders are very clear that there should be zero tolerance for hate speech and for any attempt to denigrate others," he said.

Turk blamed the rise of populist, extremist politics on the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, including rising living costs, that have "disenfranchised, disillusioned, a large segment of the population.

"The traditional political parties never are self-reflective about how they actually could do their job in order to respond to legitimate grievances that populations and constituencies have," he added.

Turk, who is nearly half way through his four-year term as U.N. rights chief and whose job is to speak out against attacks on freedoms, said he had hoped to use his position to make an impact on global issues like climate change.

However, he said wars including those in Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan had forced him into "crisis management" mode.

"We have seen the normalisation of things that, frankly, were quite unthinkable, even a couple of years ago," he said.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Additional reporting by Cecile Mantovani and Francois Murphy; Editing by Miranda Murray and David Holmes)