|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
‘We Must Not be Passive Bystanders’, Says Secretary-General,
at Event Marking Adoption of Genocide Convention
Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki‑moon’s remarks, as delivered by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, at an event marking the sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in New York on 9 December:
The Secretary-General could not be here today in order to take part in the ceremonies honoring President Nelson Mandela and I think we should let his memory also ring in this room because he was a champion for human rights, a champion for the equal value of all human beings, and there is a connection between Nelson Mandela and what we are doing here today.
The Genocide Convention was, of course, a direct response to the Second World War and, in particular to the Holocaust. Its adoption was driven not only by those horrors, but by the determination of one man, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who himself lost much of his family in the Holocaust.
It therefore gives me particular pleasure to welcome the family of Mr. Lemkin here today, coming in from New Jersey and with a new generation represented and, hopefully, I’m sure, working in the spirit of Raphael Lemkin. We are very glad to see you here, to see that the family of Lemkin is there and for the future also.
At a time when the concept of universal human rights was still quite new, the Convention was an enormous achievement. Today it enjoys broad acceptance, as we all know. Moreover, according to the International Court of Justice, all States have an obligation to prevent and punish the crime of genocide — including those not party to the Convention.
Genocide does not happen overnight. There are almost always many warning signs, usually over a period of years. Very often these are violations of human rights against one particular group or entity within a population.
The work that we are starting now, which we call “Rights Up Front” — we are trying to identify human rights violations since the first sign of a crisis evolving. If we were to act on human rights violations rather than waiting for the house to be on full fire, we could save many lives and the dignity of man. So here is very important work for us all to do.
That means genocide is enabled when we remain silent or are unwilling to act. But — and this is crucial — it also means that we can prevent it.
The Secretary-General and I are strong supporters of education and public awareness as a first defence against the dangers of prejudice, including ethnic hatred and intolerance. We must educate and prepare our youth to accept and appreciate others for their differences, as well as for what we have in common. We must also speak out against those who sow hatred, discrimination and divisiveness for political gain or other purposes. This is a very dangerous trend in today’s world to identify people in religious and ethnic and sectarian groups and then also to demonize that group. That has to be stopped.
While Member States have the primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide and other atrocity crimes, the international community must stand ready to meet its responsibilities. This principle was confirmed at the 2005 World Summit when world leaders unanimously embraced the responsibility to protect.
We at the United Nations are keenly aware of our own responsibilities and of the setbacks in our history. And we must draw lessons from those setbacks and failures.
Our human rights mechanisms are there to protect people. Our special courts and tribunals strive to combat impunity. UN Special Advisers on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect — I have Adama Dieng at my side, and Jennifer Welsh is also here with us in our work at the United Nations; they scan the world for the precursors of atrocity crimes.
UNESCO’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] work to build a culture of peace and our Holocaust Outreach Programme are important undertakings. We have also begun to implement a “Rights Up Front” action, which I mentioned, where we plan to increase our vigilance and strengthen early action in the face of widespread abuses.
The Genocide Convention has at its heart the commitment to protect vulnerable populations from mass violence. We have made significant advances since it was adopted, but we have also seen some significant failures. We must be vigilant, we must be courageous and we must be persistent.
We live in a troubled world, but it is within the power of all of us to make a difference.
Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. We must not be passive bystanders. We must always stand up for human rights, the rule of law and a life of dignity for all.
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