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Genocide: "Never again" has become "time and again"

18 September 2018

Seventy years ago, United Nations member states approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – a treaty born out of the fervent desire to ensure that “never again” would any person face the horror of genocide, such as the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly. Its approval came just one day ahead of proclaiming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, which explicitly laid out the rights inherent to all.

Today, the world is not free from the threat and reality of the “odious scourge” of genocide. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “we must take stock of the gravity of recent acts perpetrated against the Rohingya and Yazidis, and we must do everything possible to hold those responsible to account.”

“Accountability matters – not only because it provides justice for victims and punishment for perpetrators. It matters because ending impunity is central to ending genocide,” she said. “Prevention and punishment – the explicitly stated twin aims of the genocide convention – can never be seen in isolation from each other. Punishment is key to prevention. Impunity is an enabler of genocide: accountability is its nemesis.”

Bachelet made her statement during a high-level panel discussion on the 70th anniversary of the Convention during the Human Rights Council.

Fighting genocide is about establishing and combatting impunity. Bachelet pointed out that transitional justice is “another crucial part of the accountability armoury.”  She referred to a study presented earlier this year, which identified transitional justice as a way to sustain peace and security and prevent violations of human rights and international human rights law, and in particular genocide.

“While transitional justice should not be conceived primarily as a peace-making instrument, numerous indicators demonstrate that it can contribute to sustainable peace and security by helping to break cycles of violence and atrocities, delivering a sense of justice to victims, and prompting examinations of deficiencies in State institutions that may have enabled, if not promoted, those cycles,” the study stated.

However, ending immediate conflict or current violence will not be enough to stop the next atrocity spree, said Kimberly Prost, a Judge of the International Criminal Court and a former judge for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. As a judge who participated in the trial of seven men accused of crimes committed in and around Srebrenica in 1995, she saw how atrocities rose from a foundation of smouldering hatred, bigotry and ethnic and religious divisions that were never addressed.

“The painfully clear lesson was that we will never succeed in preventing genocide and other atrocities unless we can address the underlying issues, end the cycle of violence and replace vengeance with justice.”

Genocide still continues to occur, and  the often quoted sentiment of “never again” has become “time and again,” said Adama Dieng, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.

Part of the problem is that there are still UN Member States who have not ratified the convention, Dieng said. There are currently 45 States who have not done so.

“Ratifying the Convention is a matter of moral obligation towards humanity,” he said. “It represents a recognition of the responsibility of States towards their populations and shows respect for those who have perished as a result of this crime.”

The most effective form of prevention of genocide is also the most basic – embracing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said Fabian Salvioli, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.  

“That is why respect and the guarantee of human rights are the road map to be followed by governments and societies,” he said. “Nothing can prevent hate crimes such as genocide, more than the existence of societies where human rights are fully enjoyed. All public policies of the States must be directed towards that.”

Watch a video from the event below

18 September 2018