Skip to main content

Countdown to Human Rights Day

The time for human rights is now!

Learn more

Statements Human Rights Council

Human Rights Council intersessional panel discussion on the responsibility to protect

11 May 2021

Opening remarks by Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Karen Smith

May 2021, from 9:00 am to 11:00 am (EST)


Ladies and gentlemen,

Colleagues and friends,

I am honored to introduce this first intersessional panel discussion and recognize the efforts of the co-sponsors of resolution 44/14 to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Today's discussion provides a significant opportunity to further dialogue on strengthening atrocity prevention at the Human Rights Council and unite our efforts to this end. The Human Rights Council is indeed an appropriate and privileged forum for discussion on this matter and I hope that today's discussion will mark the beginning of many more to come.

Atrocity prevention must be simultaneously top down and bottom up, connecting every level where prevention action is possible and advisable, from States to regional and subregional organizations, from civil society to the United Nations, in frank dialogue and unity of purpose.

Prevention invariably succeeds through partnerships cultivated over time. I am therefore thrilled to see such a distinguished panel with us today that will share and exchange best practices on strengthening national policies and strategies to implement the responsibility to protect through national mechanisms and other stakeholders.

As you all know, last year marked the 15th anniversary since the unanimous adoption of the responsibility to protect by all Heads of State and Government at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. The adoption was a milestone in international efforts to ensure that past failures of collective action, represented by the failure to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, would never be repeated.

Sadly, we continue to see atrocity crimes being committed in many parts of the world. Experience show that they do not happen overnight. Rather, the risk of their commission is increased when triggering points find fertile ground long-standing human rights violations, including widespread impunity, hate speech, social exclusion and discrimination.

The link between atrocity crimes and human rights violations has been outlined by the Secretary-General in his reports on the responsibility to protect. The Call to Action for Human Rights has further recognized the connection between human rights protection and prevention, and provides a framework for putting human rights at the center of all United Nations action in areas that are central to our collective commitment to uphold the responsibility to protect.


Within the United Nations, the Secretary-General has made prevention his highest priority. Preventing atrocity crimes means building the resilience of societies to those crimes. This starts with understanding causes and risk factors. The Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes developed by my Office sets out a clear path for analyzing and understanding such risks as well as options to mitigate that potential.

By addressing early patterns of human rights violations, we can limit the risk of further violations and ultimately, the commission of atrocity crimes. Ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights therefore remains instrumental to upholding our collective responsibility to protect.

The Human Rights Council has a critical role to protect populations at risk of atrocity crimes, as the body mandated to promote and protect human rights for all, including addressing situations of gross and systematic violations. We have seen many positive examples in this regard, as the early warning initiatives by the Special Procedure mandate holders. The establishment of fact-finding missions and independent investigative mechanisms have also provided a valuable contribution to bring light to gross human rights violations that may constitute atrocity crimes and promote accountability for its perpetrators.

As an example, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi and the Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar have both utilized the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes to identify significant structural risk factors and potential triggers that could result in a recurrence or expansion of potential atrocity crimes. By directly applying an atrocity prevention lens, investigative mechanisms can broaden our understanding of patterns of behavior that enable the commission of atrocity crimes.

The human rights treaty bodies have also provided analysis and key recommendations on how to address structural risk factors of atrocity crimes. Therefore, Member States' cooperation with human rights monitoring mechanisms, and compliance with their recommendations, entails a great potential for advancing our collective prevention framework. This includes contribution to the design and implementation of national policies and strategies aimed at protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But there is a need for a more systematic approach.

The Council could endeavor to anticipate and effectively engage Member States at an early stage to pre-empt escalation of tensions. The Universal Periodic Review process offers opportunities to use the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes to assess elements of risk and resilience and opportunities to strengthen prevention when and where needed. I encourage all Member States under review and those making recommendations to use the Framework of Analysis as a tool in this process.

I also want to recognize the instrumental role of civil society actors in bringing the voices of affected communities and of the victims of violations to inform the discussion and decisions by the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms.

Let me conclude by emphasizing the importance of acting before it is too late. The challenges we face today remain enormous. We recognize these signs, we sound alarm. Yet serious violations continue to be committed and populations suffer the consequences. We must therefore do better, collectively.

As Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, I am committed to do my utmost to continue supporting and assisting in building the capacity of national government authorities, regional organizations and civil society, including community leaders, to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes.

I thank you and look forward to the fruitful exchange of best practices to prevent atrocity crimes.