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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The role of UN-created accountability mechanisms in the global flight against impunity: what's next?

20 January 2021

Statement delivered by Assistant Secretary-General Ilze Brands-Kehris on behalf of Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

20 January 2021

I am grateful to the Government of the Netherlands and the International Commission of Jurists for convening this important and timely discussion on the issue of accountability. It is a pleasure to share this opening panel with Minister Blok and Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. They have both deployed enormous effort in this area of such concern to the international community.

As we embark on the work of rebuilding our societies from the upheaval and destruction created by COVID-19, we need to address the racial, economic and social injustice that the pandemic has laid bare and expanded. We need to tackle the enormous accountability gaps that preceded the pandemic, accelerating its impact.

Living with the dignity and safety that stems from the sense that the rule of law is guaranteed should not be a privilege reserved for a tiny few – defined by geography, by race, by wealth, by gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic. It should be a reality for all, everywhere in the world, and for all in each State.

Combating impunity for the most egregious human rights violations is a centrepiece in this endeavour. Accountability contributes to a broader sense of justice, both within and outside affected societies. It also prevents the recurrence of violations, through deterrence of future crimes, and by helping to address the root causes of conflict and repression.

The principles of the rule of law and accountability are the foundations for all effective promotion – or even protection – of human rights. Only through accountability can human rights violations and abuses be redressed. Only through the rule of law, coupled with human-rights driven legislation and policy-making, can human rights violations and abuses be effectively prevented. Applying a preventive lens is crucial to situating accountability in the overall objectives enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

To fully realize the preventive potential of accountability, victims and affected communities require justice to be rendered, their present and future needs to be addressed, and their harms and grievances to be acknowledged and redressed. We have learnt that addressing needs and grievances is crucial, and often a pre-condition, for victims to participate in the pursuit of justice and truth-seeking. It is essential to enabling them to contribute to preventive work, not merely as victims or survivors, but as equal and recognized actors. Accountability restores victims’ dignity and acknowledges their rights.

To further broader accountability – as a key tool towards prevention – victims and affected communities must be enabled to take their rightful position in society – one from which they will be able to hold to account those in power, in the future. Only then can accountability – retrospective and prospective – truly break cycles of impunity and abuse. This requires a more comprehensive effort from all of us to advocate for, design and support complementary local, national and international accountability processes – processes that resonate with concerned populations, and contribute to their sense of justice and dignity. To be effective, accountability mechanisms, including international accountability mechanisms, must empower the communities they seek to serve, provide perspective, and contribute to solutions.

Outbreaks of violence, conflict and mass atrocity are often rooted in and accelerated by discrimination, economic inequalities, social exclusion, marginalization and failures to uphold socio-economic rights. All these factors are exacerbated by the absence or inaccessibility of remedies. Several truth commissions created to deal with legacies of massive human rights violations have found that victims of civil and political rights violations frequently belong to marginalized populations that suffered from socio-economic inequalities long before the outbreak of violence. These underlying violations of economic, social and cultural rights are often identified as root causes of the conflict.

In other words, accountability is a broader instrument that is vital in identifying and exposing underlying structural and systemic drivers of serious human rights abuses, together with the impunity that we so often see attached to them. Accountability helps to dismantle the web of structures and networks that enabled the violations in the first place. These underlying drivers of cycles of impunity are frequently produced by entrenched and insidious discriminatory practices, as well as wider violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. Put simply, impunity is rooted in persistent political and economic power structures – and these are the product of conscious, deliberate choices.

Tackling these issues requires not only courage and the determination to engage for the long haul. It also requires political, financial and other support from the international community. Determining a suitable long-term action plan must begin with deep understanding of the dynamics of impunity in each specific context. We are easily tempted to place short-lived attention on some – initially perceived promising – cases, and then shift focus as challenges become visible or obstacles arise. But we have learned from experience that it is essential to secure and lock in hard-won achievements in the process of State reform, rather than simply turning to another, seemingly easier or more promising field. Such long-term vision and determination signals consistency in action and displays the attachment to values and principles that are the foundation of the United Nations.

A month ago, on 16 December, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation. Speaking from my experience as a young woman in Chile, working with victims of the dictatorship, I see this reparative and empowering aspect as crucial, particularly in children and youth. It also helps us construct robust links between criminal justice, reparation, truth-seeking and steps to prevent recurrence. This needs to take place at various levels: in institutions, across society and among communities and individuals. Only then do we stand a chance to truly transform societies.


Investigative bodies are usually created after a human rights emergency has occurred, or a conflict has broken out. They are not principally seen as preventive in nature. But these mechanisms contribute to the non-recurrence of violations through their collection and analysis of information on human rights violations and abuses; the identification of root causes and accelerators of serious human rights violations –including in the economy and society; identification of alleged perpetrators; and recommendations on accountability and transitional justice. Their work with the media and in other public spaces also strengthens prevention – as does the perpetrators’ awareness of the consequences of their acts, which investigative bodies cast in sharper relief.

In conclusion, it is our joint responsibility to pay equal, serious attention to every situation where there is an accountability gap, and where impunity prevails. Selective application has no place in the rule of law, nor in how the international community should address such crises. The new generation of accountability mechanisms, and other initiatives that have been evolving over the past half-decade, have been largely determined by particular political considerations. Maintaining the attention of the international community in a certain moment in time, and securing its commitment of necessary financial resources for a specifically defined mandate have been among those factors.

These efforts are extremely important. They have been warranted, in every case. But they represent a floor, rather than the ceiling, of what must be our ambition in this area. In all situations where victims and societies have suffered violations of such magnitude, they must be able to expect the support of the international community.

As the pandemic so painfully reminds us, the suffering of each is the suffering of all. We cannot leave it to a particular confluence of circumstances to bring victims, affected communities and entire societies redress and protection through accountability. It is our joint responsibility, and an expression of our shared commitment to the rule of law, to advocate for and insist on systematic, consistent protection of victims of the worst crimes – whoever they are, and wherever they may be.

I look forward to working with all of you in this direction.

Thank you.