Secretary-General's Question-and-Answer session following the delivery of the Cyril Foster Lecture 2011
Oxford, United Kingdom, 2 February 2011Q: It's an honour to be here in this room with Your Honour and you, the future leaders of the world probably, so it's been a great evening. You've been talking about the responsibility and about the duty to act in service of human protection. And I was wondering if this amounts to a right of humanitarian intervention in international law. And also, how can the UN make sure that these concepts of human protection and the protection of fundamental freedoms do not amount to breaches of article 24. Thank you very much.
SG: All Member States of the United Nations are sovereign states, with sovereign right and on equal footing. We [cannot] interfere in their domestic [affairs]. The concept of responsibility to protect, when a government manifestly fails to protect their own population, then the international community should have a right to help them, rather than interfere. We have seen many tragic situations, such as in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre, [for which] the international community was severely criticized [for its] inability to protect the millions of people who were brutally murdered. In just three months, one million people were murdered [in Rwanda]. This, we should never allow to happen again. That was the philosophical and political aim of world leaders who assembled at the United Nations [to initiate the concept of Responsibility to Protect]. Let us keep this world free of such tragedies. Now, as I said, we are in the process of operationalizing this concept. It has taken nearly five years globally, including the first four years of my administration, but it was I as Secretary-General who tabled it [for further discussions] at the General Assembly. Now I think we are getting wider and wider support and soon, I hope, we'll be able to get the full support and full participation of Member States.
Q: Thank you very much for such a wide-ranging and visionary speech. I'm from the United Nations Association of the UK, and I would like to personally thank you for your support for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect over the years. My question is, what do you think countries like the UK, government and civil society can do to really help promote that concept and make it a reality?
SG: Organizations like the United Nations Associations are playing a very crucial role in helping the United Nations carry out its work. First of all, you have a wider and freer reach to civilian populations, while the United Nations sometimes mostly deals with the governments. So when you deal with the government, you have to base your work on the Charter of the United Nations, respect for Member States' sovereignty. We need to have the support of civil society. But there are many different kinds of [organizations within] civil society. And they have all [made a difference] by pressuring governments that are abusing human rights. In many cases, where the United Nations formally took up an issue, those were [often] initiated by civil society. We really appreciate the active participation of civil society. Now we have here many students. You can raise your concern to your community leaders, high-level leaders, or business community leaders. You can even raise these issues through your professors, so you have a wide range of [latitude], and in that sense a much bigger power than politicians. Politicians or diplomats are sometimes very much constrained by the existing framework, but you are much freer in raising these issues. That is why the United Nations regards our partnership and cooperation with civil society as crucially important.
Q: The UN has failed to protect and prevent in such countries as Sri Lanka, where over 40,000 innocent civilians were massacred in 2009. Will you ensure, during your term, that those responsible are brought to justice? Will you ensure there is a proper investigation of war crime and will you push for a UN referendum as the situation in northern Sri Lanka is the same as South Sudan? People have the same cultural differences, different language and different religion. Thank you.
SG: I share your concern and there were a lot of concerns raised at the time of the Sri Lankan Government's war against Tamil groups. I visited Sri Lanka twice and I had very serious talks with the President and Government leaders. After a lengthy, very difficult, almost turbulent course of negotiations, I was able to convince the Sri Lankan Government that a group of experts would be established. Still, it has not yet been able to complete its mission. They are still negotiating with the Sri Lankan Government. Meanwhile, accountability should be verifiable and any perpetrators of crimes must be held accountable. That's a basic principle of justice. There is often conflict as to how to deal with justice and political power and political stability. I think political stability is sometimes important, but if it is not accompanied by justice, the political stability cannot be sustained. And likewise, if we don't support political stability, we may not be able to carry out justice. So, my policy has always been that political stability and justice should go hand in hand. That is what I have been trying to achieve in Sri Lanka and we will continue to do that.
Off-the-Cuff on 2 February 2011