UN marks first International Day to commemorate victims of genocide; the ‘crime of crimes’

A Muslim grieving over his son’s grave in Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Only two cases have been recognized as genocide by international courts: Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (Bosnia & Herzegovina, 1995). UN Photo/John Isaac

9 December 2015 – The United Nations today marked the first International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime to remember the victims of the “crime of crimes” and to call for action against the rise of hostility, xenophobia and intolerance across the world.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message on the Day that there is a need to pay more attention to the warning signs, and be prepared to take immediate action to address them.

“After all, genocide does not just happen; it unfolds over time,” Mr. Ban said. “It is not part of the accidental ‘fallout’ of conflict; most often, it is systematic, planned, with precise targets, and it can also take place outside of conflict situations,” he underscored.

The UN chief warned there is a dangerous “us versus them” dynamic that “is often being exploited to justify the exclusion of communities based on different forms of identity such as religion, ethnicity or ‘other,’ and to deny assistance, restrict human rights and perpetrate atrocious acts of violence.”

“On this new international observance, let us recognize the need to work together more concertedly to protect individuals from gross human rights violations and uphold our common humanity,” he said.

At UN Headquarters in New York, the world body marked its first-ever commemoration of the International Day, designated as 9 December by the UN General Assembly, with a performance by the UN symphony orchestra and a minute of silence in honour of all those people around the world who have perished through the crime of genocide.

UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, who chaired the event, said the day has two important elements: “It is about the past, and also about the future.”

“This day represents both memory and action – memory as a step towards action,” he said.

Noting that “most of us are unable to even begin to imagine the extreme pain, the suffering and the trauma caused by the violence associated with genocide and other atrocity crimes,” he recalled a visit he made to Iraq in November, when he spent time with members of the Yezidi community and other minority groups.

“I was deeply moved by the stories they shared of the horrors they have been through – killings, rape, torture, forced displacement and the destruction of their communities – simply because of the beliefs that they hold, simply because of who they are,” he said. “It is difficult to grasp that human beings can be so cruel, and in such a deliberate way.”

“Unfortunately, this is just one of too many examples around the world today,” Mr. Dieng warned.

Picking up that thread in his remarks, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson noted that this has been a year of “agonizing suffering in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali and places too numerous to mention.” He said that individuals and communities have been targeted because of their religious or ethnic identity in many cases, “in other words simply because of who they are, who they are born into.”

Mr. Eliasson went on to underscore that intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia are on the rise and that the ‘us versus them’ dynamic is taking hold, fed by systematic fear-mongering from terrorists and violent extremists. “It is also important that democratic societies do not fall in the trap of such provocations to divide us as human beings. The social fabric in many of our societies is fraying. Polarization and division are growing. This is how the seeds of uncontrollable violence are sown,” he added.

Against this background, he said the first International Day is an opportunity for the UN to come together to raise awareness of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and also an opportunity to reflect on the Convention’s role in combating and preventing the crime of genocide, and to commemorate and honour the millions of victims of genocide.

“In doing this, we must ask ourselves how we give meaning to a promise we have made but several times we have failed to keep: the promise of ‘never again.’ Every time we repeat that phrase after a genocide, we in fact, admit a monumental and shameful failure,” said Mr. Eliasson.

“We owe a solemn and serious such pledge to those who have lost their lives to this, the most atrocious of crimes. We owe it to their families. We owe it to the survivors and the communities who carry the lasting physical and emotional scars from genocide,” he stressed.

Opening the event, Mogens Lykketoft, President of the UN General Assembly, said in choosing 9 December to commemorate victims of this “crime of crimes”, the Assembly has chosen also to honour those who worked tirelessly for the Convention, adopted on this day exactly 67 years ago.

“We, Member States, must therefore focus on and invest in early prevention and in building inclusive and cohesive societies,” Mr. Lykketoft said. “We must establish national and regional measures and mechanisms for the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes.”

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