10 February 2021, Geneva
Colleagues and friends,
I am honoured to introduce this intersessional meeting and recognise the efforts of the Republic of Armenia and the other sponsors of resolution 43/29 to keep the prevention of genocide on the agenda of the Human Rights Council.
Two years ago, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted on 9 December 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, it was the first international treaty of a new era characterised by a vision of the world where the atrocities committed during the Second World War would never be tolerated again. It was followed the next day by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - ensuring the link between the prevention of genocide and the protection, respect and fulfilment of human rights.
The Secretary-General referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last year when presenting his “Call to Action for Human Rights” saying “there is no better guarantee of prevention than for Member States to meet their human rights responsibilities”.
Sadly, experience – from Rwanda to Iraq and Myanmar– has shown that most mass atrocities find roots in long-standing civil and political violations, as well as discrimination, economic inequalities, social exclusion, and denial of economic, social and cultural rights. From Tutsis to Yazidis or Rohingyas, minorities have experienced severe and targeted denial of their most basic human rights.
As the President of the Human Rights Council has just recalled, early signs of many of the recent mass atrocities, including genocide, have been detected and made public by Human Rights Council mechanisms, as well as by Treaty Bodies and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. No doubt that the human rights machinery has played a great early warning role.
Yet, sounding early warning remains insufficient. In this connection, the Secretary-General suggested in his last report on the prevention of genocide to this Council (A/HRC/41/24), , that greater use can be made of the Universal Periodic Review to enhance this. Last year, three rapporteurs also made recommendations to the Human Rights Council with a view to strengthening its preventive mandate, especially through increased cooperation with the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (A/HRC/43/37). To engage in building robust linkages between the New York based bodies and the various parts of the human rights machinery located in Geneva is certainly crucial, and should be explored.
However, as emphasized by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, in a joint study they presented in 2018 to the Council (A/HRC/37/65), it is important to move the focus of preventive work “upstream.” There needs to be a consistent, coherent approach that identifies and tackles the seeds of hatred before they can grow – or be cultivated – into the resentments and bitter divisions that can escalate into conflict.
In this respect, the United Nations human rights system contributes to long term prevention by identifying the root causes and accelerators of serious human rights violations, including in the socio-economic sphere; by collecting information on [human rights] violations; identifying alleged perpetrators; and by advocating for and supporting appropriate accountability and transitional justice solutions.
Accountability is critical – not only because it provides justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. A culture of accountability and the fair and equal administration of justice are catalysts for the rule of law and a culture of respect for human rights. They allow addressing grievances and facilitate solutions to their structural roots. Forcefully combating impunity in all its forms is thus central to ending genocide and other mass atrocities. Prevention and punishment – the explicitly stated twin aims of the Genocide Convention – can never be seen in isolation from each other. Punishment – with its functions of deterrence and the enforcement of rights - is key to prevention.
States have the primary responsibility to deliver justice and prevent human rights violations and atrocity crimes. The United Nations – in the first instance this Office – can support them through building cultures of accountability in practice. International human rights law underscores the need for States to conduct effective, prompt, thorough and impartial investigations as well as prosecutions; and to ensure access to justice and effective remedies for victims. The United Nations approach embraces all these steps from fact-finding exercises through to judicial processes.
In cases where a State is unwilling or unable to deliver justice, the International Criminal Court (ICC) can take over. In this sense, the Court is a central pillar of the work to punish, and therefore help prevent, the gravest of international crimes.
States that have not yet acceded to the Rome Statute should consider it. States should also consider how they can contribute to accountability for atrocity crimes committed in other States, including through supporting the work of the United Nations or exercising universal jurisdiction – as we saw with the landmark case brought by The Gambia against Myanmar before the ICC on the basis of alleged violations of the Genocide Convention. . It will certainly increase the understanding of the role that States must play in preventing and punishing acts of genocide committed beyond their frontiers.
Effective accountability must encompass the need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the violations of victims’ rights so that their rights can be restored and their entitlement to remedy satisfied. Victims have rights to truth, justice, reparation and a comprehensive package of guarantees of non-recurrence, which will assist in preventing future crimes.
There is a powerful link between prevention and truth-seeking, the role of memory and longer-term efforts of education, notably the teaching of history. A country's approach to past atrocities can be transformative – as we have seen repeatedly. Broader accountability measures can assist this transformation to an equitable and just future. It must reach to — but also beyond — the specific crimes committed, and address systemic deficiencies in State structures that have enabled serious human rights violations and abuses.
It is only by inscribing accountability in a broader transformative agenda that it can fully realize its preventive potential.
I thank you and look forward to your insightful deliberations.