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Where the UN Genocide Convention stands after 65 years,
and what more can be done


The 2013 anniversary commemoration of the first-ever human rights action taken by the United Nations, attended by a top-level cast from government, civil society and the international community, became an occasion for taking stock of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Speakers assessed as well options for taking action to head off possible future violence against civilian populations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the best way to head off mass atrocities is to take action before a downward death spiral becomes unstoppable.

“Genocide does not happen overnight,” the Secretary-General said in his message of 9 December. “In the work that we are starting now, which we call “Rights Up Front”, we are trying to identify human rights violations [at] the first sign of a crisis evolving”.

The message was delivered by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, as the Secretary-General himself had to abruptly alter his schedule so he could attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson speaks during the event. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

 “There is a connection between Nelson Mandela and what we are doing here today”, the Deputy Secretary-General said, citing the South African’s championship of human equality and reconciliation.

Drafted by three giants in the field of human rights – Raphael Lemkin, Vespasian Pella and Henry Donnedieu de Vabres – and adopted at the first UN General Assembly in 1948, the Genocide Convention was largely a response to the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of six million Jews and many other members of minority groups.

The Deputy-Secretary-General welcomed to the anniversary event relatives of Convention advocate and co-author Raphael Lemkin (also the originator of the term “genocide”). A native of Poland, virtually all of his relatives died either in concentration camps or in anti-Nazi resistance movements. But one cousin survived, and his children, Joseph and Rachel Lemkin, attended the 2013 anniversary observation at the UN. They in turn were accompanied by those termed by the Deputy Secretary-General as “the new generation” -- Joseph’s 12-year-old daughter, and Rachel’s two similarly young daughters.

Young relatives of Raphael Lemkin present the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General with flowers.
Photo/Evan Schneide


The legacy of the Convention

Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Peter Launksy-Tieffenthal, who moderated and hosted the discussion in the UN’s ECOSOC Chamber, noted that the Secretary-General only one month earlier had visited the memorial established at the Auschwitz-Birknau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp to pay tribute to its victims. The Under-Secretary-General also pointed out that it was 65 years ago to the day – 9 December, 1948 – that Member States adopted the Genocide Convetion.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Ambassador of the United States to the European Union, speaks during the event. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The widely-felt conviction that this Convention is among the major accomplishments of the United Nations was backed up by former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat. The Ambassador, who negotiated major agreements on restitution and justice for Holocaust victims and their families in his role as President Clinton’s Special Representative on Holocaust-Era Issues, outlined how the Holocaust and the follow-up Convention have changed the face of international law:

Nevertheless, post-Holocaust tragedies still loom large in recent memory.

“‘Never again,’ was intended to be a terminal phrase,” commented veteran journalist and editor Tunku Vardarajan (Daily Beast, Wall St Journal, Forbes, Times of London).”In other words, it was a phrase to be uttered only once. But we find ourselves repeating it nearly every decade. We did so after the Holocaust. We uttered it again after Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur – the list goes on.”

While recognizing the gains cited by Ambassador Eizenstat, and endorsing the Secretary-General’s strategy of preventive action and his “bold leadership” in deploying Untied Nations resources against atrocities, UN Under-Secretary-General Adama Dieng noted that “even the best system of early warning is not effective unless there is willingness to take action” if and when genocidal momentum develops.

Adama Dieng, the UN Secretary General Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, speaks during the event.
Photo/Evan Schneide

“It is our collective obligation to stand firm and provide a shield to the defenceless,” said Dieng, who was Registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda before achieving his current position as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide. “We have to move beyond ‘early warning’ to ‘early action’.”

Primacy of national sovereignty and pressures of international politics have played a part in slowing down anti-genocide action. Maria Cristina Perceval, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations, contended that these factors were already in play during the drafting process itself. She cited the lack of a body in charge of Convention enforcement; vagueness in relation to some elements of international law; and the removal of the expression “cultural genocide” as concessions made to pave the way for universal adoption of the Convention.

Like many others, she takes a broad view of how far the umbrella of protection from persecution should extend.

“In many situations today, human diversity is perceived as a threat, and differences based on sex, gender, race, ethnic identity, culture, religion, and political ideas as dangerous and violent antagonisms,” Ambassador Perceval said. Speaking from the floor, Bruce Knotts, chair of the NGO Committee on Human rights, pointed out that the sexual orientations of persons is a category not mentioned in the Convention.

With the issue of quicker responses to deteriorating situations, such as in Syria, in mind, Beirut-based Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Haid proposed that the ICC should be given a mandate to proceed without unanimous agreement of the United Nations Security Council or explicit permission of Convention signatories. Under-Secretary-General Dieng indicated that a group of experts have been convened who are now at the point of submitting a draft protocol to the Convention which, if approved, would provide for more effective response and enforcement mechanisms.

Court of last resort
But Under-Secretary-General Dieng also addressed the other side of the coin: the primary responsibility that lies with the Member State in question, as well as with neighbouring States.

Amady Ba, head of the International Cooperation Section of the ICC, pursued this point further. He reminded participants that the ICC is a court of last – not first – resort; and also that it is responsible for only a limited circle of drastic crimes, not the entire range of possible malfunctions in any country’s justice system.

Head of the International Cooperation Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Photo/Evan Schneide

According to Mr. Ba, regional organizations are playing an increasingly important role in stemming violence – he cited the Economic Community of West Arican States (ECOWAS) and the African Union.

Mr. Ba (representing ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda at the event) also pointed to the crucial stage that should be pursued even ahead of early warning. The firmest bulwark against genocidal situations, he argued, is “a strategy of building support for rule of law, in an atmosphere of peace” in each country.

A similar view on country-level responsibility, expressed by Argentine Ambassador Perceval, provides a bracing perspective on future prospects:

“By our experience, in my country, we are able to understand that genocides do not grow only out of evil intentions. They also grow out of the inaction of the institutions or the lack of courage of those who are part of them. How many times have we seen derogatory sentiments about migrant people, races or religions going hand-in-hand with the inaction of those of us who simply can’t figure out how to stop what we see coming? Genocides also grow out of not facing social problems like poverty, inequality, discrimination and oppression when they arise, in our own nations and in the international community at large.”


United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [delivered by the Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson]

Mr. Adama Dieng, UN Secretary General Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide

H. E. Mrs. María Cristina Perceval, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations

Mr. Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Ambassador of the United States to the European Union (1993-1996)

Mrs. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court [delivered by by Amady Ba, ICC Head of International Cooperation Section]