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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human Rights CouncilIntersessional panel discussion to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity

11 May 2021

Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

11 May 2021

Madam Vice-President,


Secretary-General's Special Adviser,

Colleagues, Friends,

I am pleased to open this first Human Rights Council panel on the responsibility to protect.

Let me begin with a fundamental principle: the best form of protection is prevention.

Protecting people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, is first and foremost, about making sure that these atrocity crimes do not happen in the first place.

Especially as, too often, we cannot say they have come without any warning.

As was the case in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Iraq, they were the culmination of gradually intensifying human rights violations and incitement to hatred, coupled with an absence of effective preventive structures, recourse and accountability mechanisms.

Successfully implementing the responsibility to protect means impeding violations before they begin or intensify.

To make that happen, I believe that an "operational prevention" to avert or de-escalate ongoing threats must be combined with a deeper "structural prevention" to unlock systemic violations and reduce the long-term likelihood of atrocities.

By operational prevention, I mean early warning to detect risks of serious human rights violations and early action to stop them from spiralling into disaster.

International human rights expertise and recommendations can provide a fruitful contribution. In that sense, I call on the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms to integrate the prevention of atrocity crimes more systematically in their work.

The report on the Council's contribution to the prevention of human rights violations, presented in March 2020, led to the adoption of Resolution 45/31. I trust it will enable this Council to continue reflecting on how to improve its early warning and early action capacities.

States should also discuss preventive measures against atrocity crimes during Universal Periodic Reviews.

Which leads me to the most needed type of prevention. A structural one, that requires long-term efforts and in which the role of States is undoubtedly crucial.

As stated in the World Summit Outcome Document, States have the primary responsibility to protect.

It is usually when States fail to ensure the human rights of all individuals, including those from marginalized groups, that atrocity crimes occur.

In such cases, the international community has the responsibility to assist those willing to take protective measures against atrocity crimes.

My Office and the UN human rights mechanisms have a critical role to play in this regard, notably by contributing to the fulfilment of the priorities identified by the Secretary-General to implement the responsibility to protect.

Those include strengthening democracy, civic space, freedom of expression and the protection against discrimination, as well as, promoting accountability and the rule of law through equal access to justice, effective security forces with civilian oversight, and transparent and accountable governance.

Moreover, prevention should also be envisaged after serious human rights violations and mass atrocities have happened.

Accountability and reparation are both components of non-recurrence.

Measures that could foster "guarantees of non-recurrence" include institutional interventions, through the ratification of treaties and legal, judicial, security sector and constitutional reforms;

Societal interventions, through the creation of enabling environments;

And interventions in the cultural and the individual spheres, including education, arts memorialization initiatives, psychosocial counselling and support.

It is up to each society to determine which specific measures it needs to address root causes of violations and avoid recurrence.

States should strongly support such processes and the exchange of good practices. Today's meeting is no doubt one step in this direction.


From discrimination to poverty to lack of access to basic services, human rights gaps threaten social cohesion and are root causes of unrest and conflict.

COVID-19 feeds off and exacerbates these gaps. The pandemic has derailed progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and is producing even greater levels of inequalities worldwide.

Advancing the Sustainable Development Agenda, which mirrors the international human rights agenda, is essential for us to recover better from this crisis, into a more equitable, sustainable and, ultimately, peaceful world.

Thank you.