Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
16 November 2020
Greetings to all of you. I am honoured to speak at this event. Let me start by thanking the outgoing chair, Ambassador Mo Bleeker, as well as the incoming chair, Ambassador Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi – two formidable women whose pursuit of justice and accountability is truly admirable.
Atrocity crimes are aggravated forms of human rights violations, and preventing serious human rights violations from occurring is vital to preventing mass atrocities. To ensure that we devise the most effective action to prevent atrocity crimes, we need to redouble our efforts to understand the factors that lead up to these situations. This topic has been the object of considerable work by UN human rights bodies.
In July this year – 15 years after agreement about our common responsibility to protect – the Human Rights Council adopted
resolution 44/14, underscoring the urgency of promptly addressing situations where there is a risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.
In March, the
report presented by a group of experts examining the Council's contribution to the prevention of human rights violations, emphasized the importance of moving the focus of preventive work upstream, well before their potential commission. This is even more urgent for atrocity prevention. To be most effective, 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 crisis.
As the Secretary-General emphasises in his landmark
Call to Action for Human Rights, there is a "well-documented correlation between a society’s enjoyment of and commitment to human rights and its resilience to crisis". Structural prevention aims to rectify systemic deficiencies and thus reduce the likelihood of violations.
This long-term approach is necessarily based in human rights. We know that many outbreaks of violence, conflict and mass atrocity have roots in long-standing discrimination, economic inequalities, social exclusion, and denial of economic and social rights. Several truth commissions, created to deal with legacies of massive human rights violations, have found that victims of violations of civil and political rights belonged to marginalized populations, that suffered socioeconomic inequalities long before the outbreak of violence.
The human rights monitoring conducted by my Office across the globe confirms this. Severe inequalities, including unequal access to essential resources and jobs – particularly in combination with lack of access to justice, failure to enable participation and a shrinking democratic and civic space – are significant risk factors for tensions and conflict. This is particularly the case when discrimination – based on ethnicity, religion or any other characteristic – is an underlying factor.
Civil society is key to atrocity prevention, and to voicing demands for accountability. In situations of protracted conflict or long-standing repressive regimes, the fundamental freedoms of civil society are frequently violated, with restrictions on the civic space and serious security constraints. In these situations, networks of solidarity between civil society organizations, including across the region, can help to strengthen prevention work.
With its strong efforts to bring together a wide range of actors – including States, civil society and others – GAAMAC has set a signal for the usefulness and centrality of the inclusion of civil society, forging alliances for prevention work that can effectively be undertaken and enforced at the domestic level.
The UN human rights system, including my Office, continuously works to alert the international community to potential situations where atrocity crimes may become a concern. The core of our work consists of identifying structural gaps in human rights protection by States, and providing advice and assistance to contribute to resolving those issues, preventing longer-term harms.
The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recession has magnified the visibility of these structural gaps and their impact across society. It has become inescapably obvious that structural discrimination, and the failure to support systems for universal health-care, social protection and other human rights, are lethal – and harm all of society.
I am hopeful that this tragic demonstration of the profound protective value of the human rights-based approach will lead to broader action to uphold rights in practise – including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
By building solid human rights protections into their recovery efforts, States can invest in upstream prevention, with a specific and radical focus on detecting and eliminating socioeconomic inequalities and marginalization.
The UN human rights system also contributes to the non-recurrence of violations, through the deterrent effect of international attention; by identifying
root causes and accelerators of serious human rights violations, including in the socio-economic sphere; by
identifying perpetrators and collecting information on human rights violations; by raising perpetrators’ awareness about the consequences of their acts; and by recommending
specific actions for accountability and transitional justice, including reparation for victims.
The rapporteurs who recently examined the Human Rights Council's preventive work advocated greater emphasis on the preventive impact of investigative bodies – be they fact-finding missions, groups of experts, high-level missions or commissions of inquiry. So far, only the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan explicitly acknowledges this prevention role.
The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi clearly illustrated this preventive potential. Using the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes developed by the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, its reports warned that all eight common risk factors were present in Burundi, in particular ahead of the elections in May 2020. This starkly clarified the gravity of the situation and the risk of escalation.
Using human rights analysis with an atrocity prevention lens assists in generating
early action – both in the country concerned and internationally.
There is also a strong link between the work of investigative bodies on
accountability and the prevention of atrocity crimes.
Several independent investigative bodies have, in recent years, examined the link between systemic impunity and the recurrence of atrocity crimes – strongly advocating for justice and accountability to break such cycles. The Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic and the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan both focused a great deal of work on these points. Based on in-depth analysis of systemic impunity for serious human rights violations in Myanmar, and how this has enabled repeated atrocity crimes, the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in 2018 already concluded that accountability is the key to any sustainable peace in the country.
I want to emphasise the importance of national action plans for prevention, which must have a guarantee of access to justice and remedy at their core. States have the primary responsibility to deliver justice and accountability, and prevent violations and crimes. I call on each State to consider how it can also contribute to accountability for atrocity crimes committed in other States, including through supporting the work of the UN and also exercising universal jurisdiction.
In this regard, I am closely following the case brought by The Gambia against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, on the basis of alleged violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This case will certainly increase our understanding of the role that States must play in preventing and punishing acts of genocide.
To prevent recurrence requires us to go beyond establishing the guilt of specific perpetrators and passing a sentence. 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 right 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. To this end, grievances of victims and affected communities must be redressed, and their needs addressed.
From my own experience in working with victims of the dictatorship, and ensuring that we preserve their memory, I see this reparative and empowering aspect as crucial –notably for children and young people.
There is also a powerful link between prevention and
truth-seeking, memorialisation, and longer-term efforts of education, notably history education, that acknowledge the reality of what has occurred.
A country's approach to past atrocities can be transformative – as we have seen repeatedly in recent history. Broader accountability measures can assist this transformation by addressing the injustices of the past, to secure 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.
The Human Rights Council recently mandated our Office to prepare a series of three reports, to be presented in 2021 and 2022, which I hope will deepen our contributions to this work. A first report will focus on strengthening capacities for
genocide prevention. A second will examine
best practices to strengthen national policies to implement the responsibility to protect. The third will look at the contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations. These reports and the broad consultations they will involve will provide excellent opportunities to advance our collective understanding of successful atrocity prevention.
I have sought to highlight the importance of
upstream prevention, focusing on addressing underlying socioeconomic conditions; the
preventive potential of human rights investigations; and the contributions that a richer and broader notion of accountability can make to the prevention of atrocity crimes.
I hope that a stronger emphasis on these three elements can assist in strengthening the development of prevention action plans – and ultimately, the prevention of mass atrocities.