UN human rights chief stresses collective responsibility to protect civilians

22 July 2009 – Individual countries, regional organizations and partners of the United Nations must all do more to ensure the international community has “a credible capacity for rapid responses” to any future situations similar to previous episodes of genocide or ethnic cleansing, the top UN human rights official said today.

Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the principle of “responsibility to protect” – which holds States responsible for shielding their own populations from genocide and other major human rights abuses and requires the international community to step in if this obligation is not met – must now be translated into concrete steps.

“We should all undertake an honest assessment of our ability to save lives in extraordinary situations,” she said in a statement issued a day ahead of the General Assembly’s interactive dialogue on the issue.

Ms. Pillay warned that her own experience growing up in South Africa under apartheid demonstrated that “it is not easy for the international community to respond in a situation where genocide, war crimes or other serious human rights violations are occurring.”

She said that while her office would continue to support States to fulfil their responsibilities to protect civilians, including through institution building, technical cooperation and the overall promotion of human rights, a collective effort was needed.

“A concerted effort by States, UN partners and regional organizations will be required to develop and maintain a credible capacity for rapid responses to exceptional situations similar to those of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

“Concerted efforts by the international community at critical moments in time could prevent the escalation of violence into genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.”

Ms. Pillay’s statement echoes the remarks made yesterday by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, when he delivered a report to the General Assembly that outlines a series of measures designed to stop genocide and related crimes.

The proposals contained in the report rest on three pillars: State responsibility; international assistance and capacity-building; and timely and decisive response.


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