PRESS CONFERENCE BY UN SPECIAL ADVISER ON PREVENTION OF GENOCIDE

7 April 2006

PRESS CONFERENCE BY UN SPECIAL ADVISER ON PREVENTION OF GENOCIDE

7 April 2006
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY UN SPECIAL ADVISER ON PREVENTION OF GENOCIDE

The twelfth anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide should serve as the occasion for the international community to renew its commitment to ensure that it did not let genocide happen ever again, Juan Méndez told correspondents today at a Headquarters press conference. 

“As we remember the almost 1 million victims, we also have to remember that the international community failed to protect those victims, and that we were unable or unwilling to do what needs to be done to prevent persecution and murder on the basis of ethnicity or race”, stated Mr. Méndez, who serves as the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.

For that reason, he continued, it was important to use the date -- 7 April -- to renew the commitment not to let it happen again.  In that sense, the creation of his office had to be seen as “an act of self-criticism on the part of the United Nations for having been unable to prevent the genocide in Rwanda”.  In resolution 1366 (2001), the Security Council had acknowledged that failure and asked the Secretary-General to refer to it situations that risked deteriorating into genocide unless urgent action was taken. 

His job, based on the 1948 Genocide Convention, was to follow situations around the world where populations were at risk due to their ethnicity, race, religion or national origin and, if left unattended, might deteriorate into something like genocide.  He said he and his staff followed such situations and tried to come up with suggestions for early action that might alter the course of events.

Noting that the obligation to prevent and punish genocide was a fundamental norm in international relations, he said he was pleased that world leaders at last year’s World Summit had adopted the norm of the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations, not only from genocide but from ethnic cleansing and massive violations of human rights.  “My office was given an important boost with that declaration.”

On the other hand, it was important to translate those commitments into action, he said.  For that reason, he and his staff had embarked not only on making the new office -- established in July 2004 – work, but also to examine how it worked and what could be done to strengthen it and make it more effective.

As was seen in Darfur, populations continued to suffer attacks due to their ethnic origin, he stated.  He had visited Darfur twice since his appointment, and had made a number of recommendations to the Secretary-General, and through him to the Security Council.  Those recommendations involved four areas which had to be addressed simultaneously:  physical protection of vulnerable populations, if necessary through armed contingents; humanitarian assistance; accountability, since the cycle of impunity must be broken before victims could expect to find conditions of security that would allow them to return home; and support for the peace process.

“In all four of those areas in Darfur, the international community has taken measures.  At the same time, in each one of those four, the measures have been insufficient yet to let us have the sense that we are going in the right direction”, he said.  The matter of protection, in particular, had become a serious matter today because the situation continued to deteriorate.  It was much worse now than it was six months ago, when he visited Darfur, and certainly much worse that it was a year ago. 

Describing the situation, he cited renewed fighting between the rebel forces, the militias and the Government of Sudan.  Also, the fighting was directed at the civilian population, not against armed contingents.  Therefore, there had been several new attacks against the civilian population, resulting in new displacements and hundreds of thousands cut off from international assistance.

At the same time, he noted, the latest news about the peace process indicated that there might be a draft agreement on security conditions that might offer a glimmer of hope that a real, verifiable ceasefire could be reached.  In the next few months, while considering a transition from the African Union force to a larger and more internationalized force, it was important to bear in mind that the situation would be complicated due to the vacuum that might be created.  Whatever decision was adopted, the most important thing was that the international community must fund and equip that presence in troop strengths larger than was the case now, so they could protect everyone everywhere.

It was also vital, he added, to clarify the mandate under which those troops operated.  Debates about troop strength on the ground and about mandate were “very eerily reminiscent” of what happened in Rwanda, and the international community was still debating today.

Asked if what was happening in Darfur was genocide, Mr. Méndez replied that there had been a separate body entrusted with making that decision.  His job was not to qualify situations that he paid attention to as whether or not they could be defined as genocide, but rather prevention.  The International Commission of Inquiry determined that there was, at the very least, enough evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that the element of intent, of whether it was genocide or not, should be left to a court of law -- the International Criminal Court.

He did not believe that just calling the situation genocide would help, he said, adding that there was definitely ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.  All of that should prompt the international community to act.  In legal terms, it was not only genocide that required the international community to act.  The International Commission of Inquiry had stated that war crimes and crimes against humanity also required the international community to act.  In addition, the Genocide Convention required States to prevent genocide. 

On whether he was disappointed that the Europeans and the North Americans were “nowhere to be seen” when it came to providing troops to prevent possible genocide in Darfur, he replied that he was certainly disappointed since the situation continued to deteriorate.  Among other things, he was disappointed that the African Union was left to organize a protective mission with less means than they needed from the start.  The Union was short $200 million from the beginning, and trapped in a situation where the consent of the Government of Sudan was an important limitation on what it could do.

In effect, he said, for the last two years, the international community had engaged in half measures, which had not been sufficient to protect and which were showing signs of unravelling.  All countries bound by the Genocide Convention were not living up to their obligation to prevent the violations from happening.  In response to another question, he replied “I think there’s still a reluctance to intervene that comes... that’s not all that changed from 1994.”

As for whether countries were more determined to prevent such atrocities, he said that he had received numerous expressions of support and commitment to establish a clear procedure for early warning and early action and to prevent genocide from happening.  However, expressions of support were one thing and being ready to act on recommendations were another.  He added that some of his proposals for Darfur and elsewhere had had some immediate effect, including the presence of an international police presence in Darfur, and the abatement of hate speech in Côte d’Ivoire.

In response to further questions, he said that calling a situation genocide would in effect be a confession of failure on his part, because by definition he had not been able to prevent it.  The discussion of whether something constituted genocide or not had been “sterile and paralysing”, and operated on the wrong assumption that a situation first needed to be qualified before action was taken.  He strongly disagreed with that notion, believing that it was necessary to act before a situation became genocide.

Part of the problem in Sudan, he said, was that the Government was “playing games” with the consent that it originally gave to the African Union Mission by, for example, refusing from time to time to give them jet fuel and in effect grounding their helicopters and planes, as well as refusing for months to let them import the armoured personnel carriers that had been donated to the Mission.  “It is high time that the African Union, the Security Council and all of us tell the Government of Sudan that consent is indispensable but that consent has to be given in good faith.”

Asked about the situations in Ingushetia and Chechnya, he said that he was trying to get more information on those situations and was keeping an eye on them because of the “undeniable ethnic character of what might happen there”.  He had not yet made any open call for early action because he was trying to monitor the situation, and did not see a “value added” in doing so at the current stage.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.