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Annual Venice Conference on the Global State of Human Rights Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

16 July 2021

Greetings, and thank you for organizing this important event.

The rule of law is central safeguarding human rights, and ensuring sustainable and lasting peace.

Victims of human rights violations demand accountability, and they have a right to truth, justice and redress. Fighting impunity – effectively and consistently - is therefore central to upholding human rights. Yet the reality continues to be that impunity for gross human rights violations remains widespread across the globe.

In this struggle to combat impunity and strengthen accountability processes, a widening array of processes at national and international levels are interlocking in complementary ways. At the United Nations, and in other organisations, commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions and a number of more recent innovative investigative mechanisms with mandates to collect and preserve evidence have catalytic roles to play. The evidence of international crimes which they compile and analyse can – and should – be taken up by any of competent courts of law that may have jurisdiction, further to international due process and fair trial standards. And when the courts of the place of commission of these crimes or of the perpetrators’ nationality are closed or ineffective, this can also include courts in distant countries, operating under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.

This ability to pursue justice at a global level can reduce the relevance of some of the factors that are frequently cited to justify lack of accountability – such as the lack of resources for justice processes in war-torn situations, and political obstacles in a particular jurisdiction.

A primary lesson of the modern era of accountability has been that it is essential to empower victims and survivors to contribute to, shape and participate in many accountability process that concerns them. Due acknowledgment of their experiences, their rights and the legitimacy and importance of their voices contributes to restoring victims’ dignity. All investigative bodies need to speak to survivors, their communities, and listen, understand and internalise their needs and concerns. This is an essential pre-condition for the successful pursuit of justice and truth, and can open the door to much broader reconciliation.

For, as all of us know, impunity drives endless cycles of human rights violations and international crimes. Allow me to raise a few avenues that can help us address this pervasive challenge.

First, accountability and transitional justice should not only be seen simply as mechanisms for retrospective redress. Equally importantly, every element of these processes can also help to break cycles of violence and prevent serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and future atrocities.

Criminal justice – by its very definition – is a clear statement that no one, however powerful they are or once were, is above the law. For this to be seen as a reality is crucial for building social integration and cohesion. It also disrupts criminal networks and generates deterrent effects.

Truth-seeking provides victims with a platform to express their voices, which are often ignored, or at best secondary, in conflict or repressive situations. It enables individuals and communities to hear each others’ stories and perceptions, providing a basis for a society to develop a shared understandings of its past, and establish common points of departure for building a shared future that avoids violence and retribution.

Reparations also reduce the drive for revenge, by recognising formally harm that has been suffered and seeking to compensate victims for that.

Guarantees of non-recurrence demonstrate the clear link between transitional justice and prevention. They can be shaped as institutional and legal reforms or measures such as the strengthening of democracy, civic participation, civil society, memorialization and educational initiatives.

And as noted above, the participation of victims and their representatives in accountability and transitional justice processes is crucial to their success and to the preventive role they can play. 

Colleagues,

Let me move to the current accountability architecture, and consider some specific country situations.

Most prominently, the International Criminal Court is the linchpin of our shared fight against impunity. As its Statute reminds us, “millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity.”

Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression are crimes that attack the core values of the UN Charter and profoundly set back sustainable development and peace across the world. To ensure that all persons, leaders and otherwise, who are responsible for international crimes are brought to justice, we need a strong International Criminal Court – one that, to be truly effective and with a maximum of legitimacy, has the backing and cooperation of all States.  

This is why we must renew efforts to promote universal accession to the Rome Statute, to make the ICC a fully global court.  I welcome in that regard that, as part of the Universal Periodic Review process in the UN’s Human Rights Council, recommendations of States regularly include a call for those States which are not yet parties to the Rome Statute to accede to it. 

Excellencies,

In addition to the invaluable work of the ICC, a number of new investigative mechanisms are playing a significant role in fostering accountability.

The establishment by the UN General Assembly of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, IIIM, on Syria was a new landmark in this area. Alongside the work of the pre-existing Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council, the IIIM collects, preserves and analyses evidence of international crimes in Syria in order to facilitate and contribute to fair and independent criminal proceedings before national and international courts. To further complement this work, I have also recommended the creation of an independent and impartial mechanism to both clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in Syria and provide support to their relatives in realizing their right to know the truth.

The IIIM model inspired subsequent work on Myanmar. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, IIMM, was established by the Human Rights Council with a very similar mandate, following on from the Council’s act-Finding Mission.  

The urgency of accountability in Myanmar has been further underscored since the military coup on 1 February, with the relentless suppression of protests, and an intensification of conflicts in border areas. The IIMM, with an ongoing temporal mandate, has made clear its collection of evidence on the unfolding situation. The crisis in Myanmar has been born out of decades of military impunity, and advancing the accountability agenda will be key to a sustainable pathway forward for the country.

In other cases, the Human Rights Council has mandated collection and preservation of evidence, for accountability purposes.

By way of example, in South Sudan, my Office has played an important role in the accountability landscape, with strategic monitoring and public reporting. We have been advocating for the establishment of the mechanisms provided for in the Peace Agreement, notably the Hybrid Court to investigate and try the most serious crimes. In addition, there is the ground-breaking work of the Commission on Human Rights for South Sudan, established by the Human Rights Council in 2016. Its mandate explicitly includes the collection and preservation of evidence for future accountability purposes. 

Concerning the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, under mandate of the Human Rights Council, my own Office has since 2017 been preserving and analysing information relating to possible crimes against humanity identified by the Commission of Inquiry. We have also been engaging with relevant stakeholders to develop possible strategies for future accountability mechanisms. As indicated in my report to the Human Rights Council last March, detailed analysis of available information gives reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and may be ongoing in the DPRK.

And in relation to Sri Lanka, our Office has recently received a specific mandate from the Human Rights Council. We were similarly tasked with collecting, consolidating, analysing, and preserving information and evidence, as well as with developing possible strategies for future accountability processes. Work has already begun and a specialised team is being put in place to operationalise this mandate.

Dear colleagues,

As we continue to struggle with COVID-19 and embark on our shared task of recovering better from this generational crisis, we must bear in mind the heavy cost of neglecting human rights. Without them, our societies will neither be resilient nor sustainable.  

We need to address the racial, gender, economic and social inequalities that the pandemic has laid bare and then cruelly exacerbated.

We face many challenges based on huge human rights gaps that have been met with long-standing impunity.

Recovering better means recovering in ways that make us more equal, just and resilient. Accountability for all human rights violations is central to this effort. 

Thank you.