Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
39th Session of the Human Rights Council
Colleagues and friends,
A warm welcome to all as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And of course, a special welcome to our panellists, who bring an enormous breadth of knowledge and expertise. Thank you for your participation in this important discussion: important, because we know, that the “odious scourge” of genocide, as the Convention itself describes it, remains both a threat and a reality in the 21st century.
Just over two weeks ago, we were brutally reminded of this. The Council’s Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar issued its shocking report on the military-led campaign of murder, rape and assault against the Rohingya people of Rakhine State. A conservative estimate of 10,000 dead, countless more bereaved, maimed, raped and traumatised, and nearly three-quarters of a million people forced to flee to Bangladesh.
This leaves us in no doubt that the genocide convention matters as much today as it did on 9 December 1948, the day it became the very first human rights treaty to be adopted by the General Assembly – followed the next day by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These twin events marked the start of a new era of human rights: a vision of a world where the genocide of the Holocaust and the stripping of multiple human rights that it represented, would never happen again.
Seventy years on, we must take stock of the gravity of recent acts, perpetrated against the Rohingya and Yazidis – and we must do everything possible to hold those responsible to account.
Accountability matters – not only because it provides justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. It matters because ending impunity is central to ending genocide. Prevention and punishment – the explicitly stated twin aims of the genocide convention – can never be seen in isolation from each other. Punishment is key to prevention. Impunity is an enabler of genocide: accountability is its nemesis.
So what does accountability look like in practice? International human rights law gives us some of the answers: effective, prompt, thorough and impartial investigations, prosecutions, access to justice and effective remedies for victims. The UN approach embraces everything from fact-finding exercises to judicial processes.
Six months ago, another crucial part of the accountability armoury – transitional justice – was the focus of a major study presented to the Human Rights Council. This important study was jointly written by the Secretary General’s Special Adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng – whom we’re delighted to welcome as one of our panellists today – and the former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, Pablo de Greiff.
The report’s central message is clear: transitional justice processes help to prevent violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and in particular genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. They deliver truth, justice and reparations – and are therefore a vital tool in breaking the cycles of impunity, discrimination and marginalisation and the risk of recurrence.
This report highlights the importance and potential preventative impact of the work of the Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Office. The International Criminal Court also forms a central pillar of the work to punish, and therefore help prevent, these gravest of international crimes. We now have the means to bridge, if not eradicate, the impunity gap for international crimes, including genocide.
States have the primary responsibility for prosecuting perpetrators, but the Court’s use is wholly appropriate in cases where the State is unwilling or unable to deliver justice.
I welcome last week's decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court, which found that the Court has jurisdiction over the alleged deportation from Myanmar of Rohingya, and possibly other crimes. Although the decision does not specifically address the crime of genocide, it offers real hope for accountability for the crimes committed.
Support for the Court is indispensable for both justice and deterrence. I urge all States to support the Court, and in this, the year we commemorate the 20th anniversary of its founding with the Rome Statute, I call upon all remaining countries to sign or ratify the Statute.
Genocide is always shocking. But it is never committed without clear, multiple warning signs: a pattern of abuse against a group, an intent to harm, a chain of command and finally a brutal and horrifying outcome. In the case of the Rohingya, warning signs abounded: a people oppressed from birth to death, an army answerable to no one, and systematic, state-led human rights violations that went unpunished for decades, including arbitrary deprivation of nationality.
One of our remaining challenges, 70 years after the convention’s adoption, is therefore to improve how we recognise and act on these warning signs, including hate speech – both in the real world, and on social media.
As the Secretary-General has emphasised, the best prevention tool is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the international treaties deriving from it, since they identify many of the root causes of conflict and also provide real-world solutions. As we celebrate the 70th anniversaries of both the genocide convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it remains essential that we stand up for this great vision of a more humane and peaceful world.
I look forward to your discussions.