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Prevention and punishment are key — 60 th anniversary of the Genocide Convention

The ultimate responsibility for preventing genocide lies with states, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says on 9 December, as the world marks the 60th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention).

Navi Pillay UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “The ultimate responsibility for preventing genocide lies with states.” ©   UN Photo/John IsaacThe High Commissioner also emphasizes the need to punish genocide perpetrators.

“As in any justice system, we have to deal with the question of impunity. You cannot, for instance, prosecute an individual for stealing a loaf of bread and yet not prosecute individuals at the top who are responsible for the deaths and rapes of thousands of people – and that is the importance of criminal prosecution,” she says.

A tribunal set up in Cambodia with the support of the United Nations also addresses the crime of genocide. A permanent International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the 1998 Rome Statute, has jurisdiction to prosecute genocide. So far 108 countries have accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

“Genocide is the ultimate form of discrimination. We must do everything in our power to prevent it,” says the High Commissioner.

“Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and the other grounds I mentioned lead to atrocities and violence against these groups. And this is why we have to address all forms of discrimination.

We have to learn to respect others and learn tolerance for differences, because in little ways they then escalate, if they are not addressed. And this leads to one group becoming so hostile against the other, that they result in killing or exterminating them, amounting to genocide,” Pillay adds.

As of today, 140 states have ratified the Genocide Convention. The High Commissioner says that while the international community shares a collective responsibility to prevent genocide, individual states have a primary role and a higher stake in putting a stop to the crime.

“The ultimate responsibility for preventing genocide lies with states. The UN has done a great deal to draw attention to this but what states should do, in my view, is to incorporate these serious crimes in their national legislation, to set up human rights organizations, to have independent judiciaries, to promote education and proper values so that individuals will be insulated from propaganda […] that encourages them to kill their neighbours,” she stresses.

The first genocide conviction occurred at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998, set up to try suspects of the 1994 Rwanda genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead. Another ad hoc court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia , was also established to prosecute and try those responsible genocide and other serious crimes.

A tribunal set up in Cambodia with the support of the United Nations also addresses the crime of genocide. A permanent International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the 1998 Rome Statute, has jurisdiction to prosecute genocide. So far 108 countries have accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

Pillay says these UN tribunals “serve to deliver justice to victims who have suffered and they send out a strong message of deterrence,” noting that the most important purpose of the Convention is to prevent genocide from taking place.

The UN human rights system also plays an important role. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has field presences in over 50 countries. Human rights treaty bodies and independent experts under the Human Rights Council also monitor, identify and warn against patterns of massive, serious and systematic violation of human rights that might to lead to genocide.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Convention, OHCHR is organizing a seminar next January on the prevention of genocide.

December 2008