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Side event: National Accountability for Atrocity Crimes

13 June 2014

Friends and colleagues,

I am grateful to Estonia and to the Open Society Justice Initiative for organising today’s event on this important and topical subject.

Accountability for gross and serious violations of international human rights law, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide is a human rights priority. In the sadly well-known vicious cycle of such crimes, impunity fuels further violence. Gross violations of human rights and other international crimes undermine the fabric of societies and often have a destabilizing effect on States and their regions. Conversely, the search for the truth, and the pursuit of accountability and sanctions for perpetrators helps: to restore victims in their rights, restores the rule of law, decreases the risk of further violence and fosters reconciliation throughout society. As the Secretary-General has stated, ensuring accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide is key to increasing public trust in justice and security*.

The primary responsibility for investigating allegations of gross violations of human rights and international crimes, and for ensuring that the victims receive justice and redress, squarely rests with States. This is clearly established in a range of international treaties and regional human rights conventions, and is also an accepted principle of customary international law. To give just one example, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment requires that each State Party ensures a prompt and impartial investigation whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that “it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes”.

Clearly then, in accordance with these legal frameworks – which States have not only accepted, but created themselves – States should not take any measures that prevent or limit accountability, such as granting amnesties or immunities for gross violations of human rights.

The right to remedy is also enshrined in numerous international and regional human rights conventions. It requires States to develop and enforce a framework in which the victims of violations of human rights law and other international crimes can receive acknowledgment, justice and redress. The Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law place a firm duty on States to investigate and, if there is sufficient evidence, prosecute all alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and serious international crimes. Failure to secure justice for victims of international crimes not only fails the victims, it also damages society at large.

We must acknowledge the challenges faced by the victims as well as the other stakeholders when considering national accountability measures. There may be no clear political commitment to accountability. The proper performance of justice regarding atrocity crimes should be depoliticized, and requires respect for all relevant human rights norms and standards, in particular the independence of the judiciary, due process and fair trial. It also rests on the capacity to investigate and prosecute acts that necessarily have affected large numbers of victims. The perpetrators may have included official entities and individuals who were, or may remain, politically powerful. Inadequate or non-existent legislation and programmes to ensure protection for witnesses and victims may also present an obstacle.

Against this background, human rights mechanisms, and in particular the Treaty-Body system and the Universal Periodic Review significantly contribute to encouraging States to ensure that their laws and practices are in line with their national and international human rights commitments. Among the more than 20,000 recommendations resulting from the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, a good number concern accountability for gross violations of human rights and other international crimes. Many concern measures to foster accountability at the national level, and others relate to the International Criminal Court, notably ratification of its Rome Statute.

I echo this call. States that have not yet done so should ratify the Rome Statute, which is a remarkable and inspiring landmark for the human rights compliance system. The International Criminal Court embodies our hope for genuinely universal and systematic accountability for the most heinous human rights violations and international crimes – not only through its own work, but also, and crucially, through its capacity to incentivize accountability at the domestic level. However, for the International Criminal Court to be truly effective, the Rome Statute should be ratified universally.

Accountability is too fundamental to be left to a single forum, and should be pursued at all levels – nationally, internationally, and even possibly regionally. In recent years a number of ad-hoc and hybrid criminal tribunals have been established in specific situations to investigate, prosecute and try individuals accused of international crimes. Some of these tribunals have been described as 'hybrid' or 'internationalised' tribunals, since their structure and applicable law combine both international and national elements. They, too, play an important role in closing the accountability gap, and help to re-establish the rule of law and a sense of common destiny and community throughout the population.

I welcome all accountability mechanisms that comply with international law, and notably international human rights law. Victim-centered justice processes, based on international standards and good practice, are indispensable to ensure accountability. In this context, I trust that the expansion of the jurisdiction of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights to try cases of gross human rights violations and other international crimes, which is currently under consideration, will demonstrate the commitment of African States to systematically promote accountability for gross human rights violations and other international crimes without exception, irrespective of the rank or function of those responsible for these crimes.

I look forward to your discussions of this fundamental issue.
Thank you

* UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General, Delivering Justice: A programme of action to strengthen the rule of law at the national and international levels, A/66/749, March 16, 2012, para. 36 .