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Side-event organized by the Permanent Mission of Hungary 12th Session of the Human Rights Council: Introductory Remarks by Navanethem Pillay UN High Commissioner for Human Rights



17 September 2009

Dear Colleagues,

I wish to convey my appreciation to the Permanent Mission of Hungary for hosting this side-event. I also want to take this opportunity to welcome the initiative of the Government of Hungary to establish the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. Averting genocide is a task of the highest order which demands our full attention and dedicated resources, as well as a deeper understanding of the dynamics, conditions and mind-set that shape genocidal designs.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes “genocide" as a specific crime encompassing certain enumerated acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group.

The enumeration in the convention of only these discriminatory grounds, namely national, ethnic, racial, or religious, was appropriate in 1948. In time, however, its shortcomings became apparent.

Human rights jurisprudence has focused on crimes against humanity as a way of filling this definitional and legal gap. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 by the UN Security Council, and later, the creation of the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes contributed to address this legal gap.

To date, there are 140 State Parties—and 41 States as signatories—to the genocide convention. Once again, I call upon all States that have not done so to ratify or accede to the convention.

The genocide convention provides for implementation through the International Court of Justice, as well as criminal prosecution before international tribunals.

The ICJ, in the context of complaints and disputes referred to it by Member States, rules on compliance and contraventions. For instance, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, the ICJ found that Serbia had failed to prevent genocide in Srebrenica. In that landmark judgment, it determined that the obligation to prevent genocide requires State Parties “to employ the means at their disposal… to prevent persons or groups not directly under their authority from committing an act of genocide.”

The creation of the International Criminal Court also provided a crucial venue for addressing the crime of genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. To date, 108 States are parties to the ICC Statute, but we need to continue to urge universal ratification of this instrument. Moreover, full cooperation of States with the Court is not only indispensable for the effectiveness of the Court, but also to ensure that it’s potential for deterrence—and thus prevention—is strengthened. A key measure for the prevention of genocide and other heinous crimes is to ensure an end to impunity for such criminal acts.

In particular, those in position of leadership must be made accountable. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda—where I served as a trial judge and President—successfully prosecuted political and military heads.

The Akayesu Case decided by the ICTR in 1998 was the first in which an international tribunal was called upon to interpret the definition of genocide under the genocide convention. Crucially, in Akayesu it was established that rape may constitute an element of genocide if committed with intent to destroy a particular group. In this instance, Tutsi women alone were targeted for rape.

It is literally of vital importance that all States cooperate with international courts and ad hoc tribunals to bring perpetrators to justice. This will send a clear signal that abuses of such magnitude and scale will not go unpunished. In turn, accountability may act as a deterrent and thus as a preventive measure against further occurrences.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

International tribunals are and should be regarded as mechanisms of last resort. The first recourse must be at the national level. States should establish appropriate legal and judicial systems to prosecute genocide crimes. International justice must be activated only when national systems are unable or unwilling to prosecute genocide. In this regard, I also wish to emphasize the importance of universal jurisdiction over crimes of genocide.

As we seek to avert genocide and other serious crimes, we must first look into its root causes and possible triggers. Such methodology is consonant with a human rights approach to prevention which focuses precisely on the primary causes of this crime. Invariably, these include discrimination. Such preconditions foment persecution, large-scale violence, mass atrocities and even extermination.

In this context, allow me to underscore that the prohibited grounds of discrimination listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as several human rights treaties, encompass discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. In other words, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are much wider than those envisaged by the genocide convention. As we seek to prevent genocide and root out its causes, this broader definition must represent our point of departure.

I believe that a strong normative framework of international human rights law has been established and must inform our preventive strategies. Implementation, however, lags behind.

Efforts should be made more consistently to address and attend to the concerns and recommendations of the independent experts of Special Procedures and of treaty bodies, which monitor States’ human rights obligations. The former are well-positioned to identify patterns of massive, serious and systematic violations of human rights. They can issue an early warning regarding human rights violations which carry the potential of leading to genocide. That was indeed the case when the former Special Rapporteur on summary and arbitrary executions foresaw mass killings in Rwanda before the genocide actually occurred.

Similarly, the committees established to monitor the implementation of the core human rights treaties are of fundamental importance to early warning. Their practice of reviewing periodic reports by States parties allows for the continued monitoring of implementation of human rights standards. Their Concluding Observations provide a fundamental link between the goals defined in international treaties and the evolving human rights situations in States Parties. One treaty body—the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination­—has developed an early warning and urgent action procedure for the prevention of gross violations of human rights.

However, gaps in such monitoring result from a failure of some States Parties to comply with their reporting obligations.

At the beginning of this year, in the Seminar on the Prevention of Genocide- which my Office organized upon a request of the Human Rights Council, I suggested that there is a need to make better use of UN human rights mechanisms which should be brought closer to the human rights reality at a national level. In addition, their reports, conclusions and recommendations should be absorbed more effectively and systematically into relevant policies and decision-making structures at the national, regional and international levels.

Dear Colleagues,

The Budapest Centre can help to accomplish these goals. In this regard, I welcome the centre’s determination to establish links with UN institutions and agencies, as well as partnerships with regional organisations and sub-regional organisations. It will also develop cooperative relationships with other institutions and civil society organizations, particularly those which are active in the field of conflict prevention.

It is indeed through expansive partnerships and through the combined efforts of broad coalitions that another aspect of prevention and protection against genocide and mass atrocities can be activated. I refer to the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect civilians against the worst abuses.

This principle was endorsed by the world leaders at their 2005 summit. The outcome document issued at this gathering spells out what the norm of “responsibility to protect” entails, including a duty to prevent and stop genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The world community accepted this responsibility and promised to act in accordance with it. The outcome document also emphasizes that the international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability. These provisions in the outcome document are firmly anchored in well-established principles of international law. In July of 2009, the General Assembly held an extremely important discussion about the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’ in an effort to hammer out the implications and requirements of this norm at the practical level.

The Budapest Centre is well-positioned to assist States and all stakeholders in this effort. I am confident that it will earnestly take on this challenge.

Dear Colleagues,

Let me conclude by noting once again the need to address genocide at its root causes, which often stem not so much from identity differences, but from structures and policies of marginalization, exclusion, and discrimination, as well as a denial of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights.

I believe that we must all work together to achieve an environment of respect for equality and non-discrimination. This environment, supported and bolstered by effective institutions of governance and judicial systems, clearly would help to prevent genocide.

Thank you.