Outreach Programme on the
Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations

Eugenie Mukeshimana
Testimony by a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
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Rwanda has embarked on an ambitious Justice and Reconciliation process with the ultimate aim of all Rwandans once again living side by side in peace.

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During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, up to one million people perished and as many as 250,000 women were raped, leaving the country’s population traumatized and its infrastructure decimated. Since then, Rwanda has embarked on an ambitious Justice and reconciliation process with the ultimate aim of all Rwandans once again living side by side in peace.

Justice After the Genocide

In the years following the genocide, more than 120,000 people were detained and accused of bearing criminal responsibility for their participation in the killings. To deal with such an overwhelming number of perpetrators, a judicial response was pursued on three levels:

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the United Nations Security Council on 8 November 1994, and formally closed on 31 December 2015. The Tribunal had a mandate to prosecute persons bearing great responsibility for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda between 1 January and 31 December 1994.

The first trial started in January 1997, and by December 2012, the Tribunal had completed the trial phase of its mandate. During its two decades of work in Arusha, Tanzania, the ICTR sentenced 61 people to terms of up to life imprisonment for their roles in the massacres. Fourteen accused were acquitted and 10 others referred to national courts. The ICTR held 5,800 days of proceedings, indicted 93 people, issued 55 first-instance and 45 appeal judgements, and heard the “powerful accounts of more than 3,000 witnesses who bravely recounted some of the most traumatic events imaginable during ICTR trials,” ICTR President Judge Vagn Joensen told the UN Security Council in December 2015.

The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), set up by the Security Council in December 2010, took over the remaining tasks of the ICTR – and of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The Mechanism plays an essential role in ensuring that the ICTR’s closure does not leave the door open to impunity for the remaining fugitives. The ICTR branch of the Mechanism began to function on 1 July 2012.

The Tribunal has issued several landmark judgments, including:

  • In the first judgment by an international court on genocide, a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was convicted in 1998 of nine counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. The judgment was also the first to conclude that rape and sexual assault constituted acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a targeted group.
  • The conviction of the prime minister during the genocide, Jean Kambanda, to life in prison in 1998 was the first time a head of government was convicted for the crime of genocide.
  • The Tribunal’s "Media Case" in 2003 was the first judgment since the conviction of Julius Streicher at Nuremberg after World War II to examine the role of the media in the context of international criminal justice.

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The National Court System

Rwanda’s national courts prosecute those accused of planning the genocide or of committing serious atrocities, including rape. By mid-2006, the national courts had tried approximately 10,000 genocide suspects. In 2007, the Rwandan government abolished the death penalty, which had last been carried out in 1998 when 22 people convicted of genocide-related crimes were executed. This development removed a major obstacle to the transfer of genocide cases from the ICTR to the national courts, as the ICTR draws to a close.

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The Gacaca Court System

To address the fact that there were thousands of accused still awaiting trial in the national court system, and to bring about justice and reconciliation at the grassroots level, the Rwandan government in 2005 re-established the traditional community court system called “Gacaca” (pronounced GA-CHA-CHA),.

In the Gacaca system, communities at the local level elected judges to hear the trials of genocide suspects accused of all crimes except planning of genocide. The courts gave lower sentences if the person was repentant and sought reconciliation with the community. Often, confessing prisoners returned home without further penalty or received community service orders. More than 12,000 community-based courts tried more than1.2 million cases throughout the country.

The Gacaca trials also served to promote reconciliation by providing a means for victims to learn the truth about the death of their family members and relatives. They also gave perpetrators the opportunity to confess their crimes, show remorse and ask for forgiveness in front of their community. The Gacaca courts officially closed on 4 May 2012.

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20 Years Challenging Impunity — the UN ICTR has been at the forefront of the global fight against impunity, prosecuting those considered most responsible for the gravest crimes committed in 1994.

As the Tribunal approaches the end of its mandate, its legacy lays the foundation for a new era in international criminal justice.

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Press Conference — ICTR and Rwanda, 20 years later

Mr. Bongani Majola, Assistant Secretary-General and Registrar of the ICTR and Dr. Ousman Njikam, Legal Officer in the Immediate Office of the Registrar.

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Unity and Reconciliation in Rwanda

The reconciliation process in Rwanda focuses on reconstructing the Rwandan identity, as well as balancing justice, truth, peace and security. The Constitution now states that all Rwandans share equal rights. Laws have been passed to fight discrimination and divisive genocide ideology.

Primary responsibility for reconciliation efforts in Rwanda rests with the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1999. It makes use of the following approaches:

  • Ingando: A programme of peace education. From 1999 to 2009, more than 90,000 Rwandans participated in these programmes, which aim to clarify Rwandan history and the origins of division amongst the population, promote patriotism and fight genocide ideology.
  • Itorero: Established in 2007, the Itorero programme is a leadership academy to promote Rwandan values and cultivate leaders who strive for the development of the community. From 2007 to 2009, 115,228 participants took part in the Itorero program.
  • Seminars: Training of grassroots leaders, political party leaders, youth and women in trauma counseling, conflict mitigation and resolution, and early warning systems.
  • National summits: Since 2000, several national summits have been organized on topics related to justice, good governance, human rights, national security and national history.
  • Research: The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has published a number of studies investigating the causes of conflicts in Rwanda and how to mitigate and resolve them.

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We have learned important lessons. We know more keenly than ever that genocide is not a single event but a process that evolves over time, and requires planning and resources to carry out. As chilling as that sounds, it also means that with adequate information, mobilization, courage and political will, genocide can be prevented.

— Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
at the New York launch of Kwibuka20,
the 20th commemoration of the Rwanda genocide

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Understanding Genocide

The need to prevent genocide and punish those responsible has been of concern to the international community since the end of the Second World War, during which more than 6 million people were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime for reasons of their ethnicity, sexuality or other characteristics.

What is Genocide?

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide PDF (known as the "Genocide Convention") defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting on the group the conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Convention confirms that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or war, is a crime under international law which parties to the Convention undertake "to prevent and to punish." The primary responsibility to prevent and stop genocide lies with the State in which this crime is committed.

The Case of Rwanda

In 1994, as the international community watched, more than 800,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsi, were massacred by Hutu militia and government forces over a period of just 100 days. The killings began the day after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The presidents were returning from peace talks aimed at shoring up a fragile peace agreement and ending the conflict between the largely ethnic Hutu-dominated government and the largely Tutsi rebel army. The crash re-ignited the war. Retreating government forces joined ethnic Hutu militia in inciting civilians to kill ethnic Tutsis.

They alleged that civilians were helping the Tutsi rebels and used this to justify the mass targeting of innocent peoples. A small peacekeeping force which had been sent by the United Nations to monitor the peace accord was not authorized to intervene. A warning that genocide was planned was not acted upon.

Today, the effects of the genocide in Rwanda are still felt in many different ways both inside the country and in neighbouring states, including in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where large areas of South Kivu province are still controlled by Hutu militia from Rwanda and their local allies. Alongside other fighters in the Congo war, they continue to commit serious human rights violations, including abductions, killings and rape. Sexual violence, particularly against women and children, is widespread.

Preventing Genocide

Genocide is not something that happens overnight or without warning. Genocide requires organization and constitutes in fact a deliberate strategy and one that has been mostly carried out by governments or groups controlling the state apparatus. Understanding the way genocide occurs and learning to recognize signs that could lead to genocide are important in making sure that such horrors do not happen again.

On 7 April 2004, the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined a five-point action plan for preventing genocide:

  1. Prevent armed conflict, which usually provides the context for genocide;
  2. Protect civilians in armed conflict, including through UN peacekeepers;
  3. End impunity through judicial action in national and international courts;
  4. Gather information and set up an early-warning system; and
  5. Take swift and decisive action, including military action.

1. Prevent Armed Conflict

As genocide is most likely to occur during war, one of the best ways to reduce the chances of genocide is to address the root causes of violence and conflict: hatred, intolerance, racism, discrimination, tyranny, and the dehumanizing public discourse that denies whole groups of people their dignity and their rights. Addressing inequalities in access to resources constitutes a critical prevention strategy. The primary responsibility for conflict prevention rests with national governments. The UN supports national efforts, including through political, diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, and institutional activities. Economic and social development and alleviating poverty also make a substantial contribution to preventing conflict.

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2. Protect Civilians — Including Through UN Peacekeepers

When efforts to prevent conflict fail, one of the highest priorities must be to protect civilians. Wherever civilians are deliberately targeted because they belong to a particular community, there is a risk of genocide. Over the last decade, the UN Security Council has frequently expanded the mandate of UN peacekeepers so that they can physically protect civilians who are threatened with violence. Today, UN peacekeeping missions regularly help national authorities to establish effective arrangements for investigating and prosecuting serious violations of the law; disarm and demobilize fighters and help to reintegrate them into the community; enforce special measures to protect women and girls from sexual violence; and report on any "hate media" inciting people to genocide, crimes against humanity or other violations of international humanitarian law.

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3. End Impunity Through Judicial Action

To deter people from committing crimes of genocide, those responsible for such crimes need to be brought to justice. Fighting impunity and establishing a credible expectation that the perpetrators of genocide and related crimes will be held accountable can effectively contribute to prevention.

Today, if a State is unwilling or unable to exercise jurisdiction over alleged perpetrators of genocide, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is empowered, within the parameters of its Statute, to investigate and prosecute those most responsible. The ICC is a permanent tribunal, separate from the United Nations, with its seat in The Hague, Netherlands, to try individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It came into being on 1 July 2002, the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, entered into force. So far, 21 cases in 8 situations (countries) have been brought before the ICC. In March 2012, the Court delivered its first-ever verdict, issuing a judgment in the war crimes trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader accused of participating in the recruitment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Before the ICC was established, special tribunals were created to prosecute those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda:

  • The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has its seat in The Hague, Netherlands, was established in 1993 by the UN Security Council. It has indicted 161 persons for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Of those, it has concluded proceedings against 141, with proceedings ongoing for 20. The most prominent trials currently are those of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, started in October 2009, and former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, started in May 2012. Both are accused of carrying out genocide and other crimes against Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats and other non-Serb civilians between 1992 and 1995.
  • The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which has its seat in Arusha, Tanzania, began operating in 1995, after a UN Security Council resolution of November 1994. The ICTR issued a total of 92 indictments, 2 of which were withdrawn, and 10 of which were referred to national jurisdictions, including 2 to France and 8 to Rwanda.  Two accused died before the completion of their cases. As of March 2014, of the 63 completed cases, 14 accused were acquitted, and 49 were found guilty and convicted. Six of the accused whose cases have been transferred to Rwanda remain at large, and the cases of 3 other fugitives will be heard before the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) in the event of their apprehension. Among the completed cases are owners of media organizations involved in hate media, as well as former military and government leaders, including former prime minister Jean Kambanda – sentenced to life in prison for the crime of genocide – and former mayor Jean Paul Akayesu, whose judgment in 1998 was the first ever to specify that rape may constitute genocide if committed with the intent to destroy a particular group.

Both the ICTY and the ICTR are expected to complete their work by the end of 2014. After that, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), set up by the Security Council in December 2010, will take over and finish the remaining tasks of the tribunals.

A special tribunal was set up in 2003 to try those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – established as a result of an agreement between the UN and the Cambodian Government – in February 2012 sentenced Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the former head of a notorious detention camp, to life in prison, the maximum sentence under Cambodian law, for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The ECCC has so far detained and charged four other former government officials.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – judicial mechanisms based on agreements between the UN and the Governments of Sierra Leone and Lebanon – do not have jurisdiction over cases of genocide.

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4. Set Up Early Warning Systems

The tragedies of Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s demonstrated, in the worst possible way, that the international community had to do more to prevent genocide. With this in mind, the Secretary-General, in 2004, appointed Juan Mendez as Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, succeeded in 2007 by Francis Deng and in 2012 by Adama Dieng.

The Special Adviser collects information on situations where there may be a risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Due to the sensitive nature of the mandate, much of his/her work remains outside of the public eye. However, when the Special Adviser assesses that making his/her concerns public will reduce the risk of genocide and related crimes in a specific situation, or advance the cause of peace and stability, he/she issues public statements, like in the cases of Syria and Myanmar. The Special Adviser is also responsible for bringing situations to the attention of the Secretary-General and, through him, of the Security Council, and for making recommendations on actions to prevent or halt genocide.

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5. Take Swift Action — Including Use of Military Force

When, where, and how to intervene militarily in domestic situations to prevent or respond to genocide or other mass atrocity crimes is to be decided by the Security Council, in accordance with the United Nations Charter.

In September 2005, at the United Nations World Summit, all countries formally agreed that, if peaceful methods are inadequate and if national authorities are "manifestly failing" to protect their populations from the four mass atrocity crimes, States should act collectively in a "timely and decisive manner," through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the Charter of the UN:

  • In the case of Libya, the international community moved quickly to stop the government from killing its own citizens. Security Council resolution 1973 in March 2011 enabled an international coalition to intervene to stop the killings of protestors of the Qadhafi regime.
  • In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the UN Security Council, on 30 March 2011, unanimously adopted resolution 1975, condemning the gross human rights violations committed by supporters of both ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and President Ouattara following the presidential elections in November 2011 and authorizing a UN military operation to prevent the use of heavy weapons against civilians.
  • For South Sudan, the Security Council, in resolution 1996 of July 2011, established a UN peacekeeping mission (UNMISS), to — among other things — advise and assist the government in fulfilling its responsibility to protect civilians. In February 2014, the Security Council reiterated its steadfast support for UNMISS and its vital mission on behalf of the international community to protect civilians in South Sudan.
  • In the case of the Central African Republic, the UN Secretary-General in March 2014 outlined his proposal for the establishment of a nearly 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation that would be tasked, first and foremost, with protecting civilians in the strife-torn nation.
  • In the case of Syria, despite rising numbers of dead and displaced, and dire warnings from the UN’s top officials, including repeatedly from the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council has been unable to unify behind a common course of action.

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From Prevention to Protection — The Genocide Convention 65 Years On — Panel discussion.

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Genocide Convention — Interview with Mr. Raphael Lemkin, Polish lawyer who coined the term "genocide" in 1944.

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Never Again — An Interview with Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide.

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The Genocide Convention: A Call for Action

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Adama Dieng on the 70th anniversary of the Convention on Genocide

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Who is responsible for protecting people from gross violations of human rights?

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Emergence of the Concept

Debating the Right to "Humanitarian Intervention" (1990s)

Following the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, the international community began to seriously debate how to react effectively when citizens’ human rights are grossly and systematically violated. The question at the heart of the matter was whether States have unconditional sovereignty over their affairs or whether the international community has the right to intervene in a country for humanitarian purposes.

In his Millennium Report of 2000, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recalling the failures of the Security Council to act in a decisive manner in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, put forward a challenge to Member States: "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?"

From Humanitarian Intervention to the Responsibility to Protect (2001)

The expression "responsibility to protect" was first presented in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), set up by the Canadian Government in December 2001. The Commission had been formed in response to Kofi Annan's question of when the international community must intervene for humanitarian purposes. Its report, "The Responsibility to Protect," found that sovereignty not only gave a State the right to "control" its affairs, it also conferred on the State primary "responsibility" for protecting the people within its borders. It proposed that when a State fails to protect its people — either through lack of ability or a lack of willingness — the responsibility shifts to the broader international community.

Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (2004)

In 2004, the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change PDF, set up by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, endorsed the emerging norm of a responsibility to protect — often called "R2P" — stating that there is a collective international responsibility, "exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law which sovereign governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent." The panel proposed basic criteria that would legitimize the authorization of the use of force by the UN Security Council, including the seriousness of the threat, the fact that it must be a last resort, and the proportionality of the response.

Report of the Secretary-General: In Larger Freedom (2005)

In his report "In larger freedom," Secretary-General Kofi Annan "strongly agreed" with the approach outlined by the High-level Panel and suggested that a list of proposed criteria — including seriousness of the threat, proportionality and chance of success — be applied for the authorization of the use of force in general.

United Nations World Summit (2005)

In September 2005, at the United Nations World Summit, all Member States formally accepted the responsibility of each State to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. At the Summit, world leaders also agreed that when any State fails to meet that responsibility, all States (the "international community") are responsible for helping to protect people threatened with such crimes. Should peaceful means — including diplomatic, humanitarian and others — be inadequate and national authorities "manifestly fail" to protect their populations, the international community should act collectively in a "timely and decisive manner" — through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the UN Charter — on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with regional organizations as appropriate.

In Practice

The first time the Security Council made official reference to the responsibility to protect was in April 2006, in resolution 1674 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The Security Council referred to that resolution in August 2006, when passing resolution 1706 authorizing the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops to Darfur, Sudan. Recently, the responsibility to protect featured prominently in a number of resolutions adopted by the Security Council.

Libya (2011)

Following widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population by the regime in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (short: Libya), the UN Security Council, on 26 February 2011, unanimously adopted resolution 1970, making explicit reference to the responsibility to protect. Deploring what it called "the gross and systematic violation of human rights" in strife-torn Libya, the Security Council demanded an end to the violence, "recalling the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population," and imposed a series of international sanctions. The Council also decided to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

In resolution 1973, adopted on 17 March 2011, the Security Council demanded an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to ongoing attacks against civilians, which it said might constitute "crimes against humanity." The Council authorized Member States to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. A few days later, acting on the resolution, NATO planes started striking at Qadhafi’s forces.

Côte d’Ivoire (2011)

In response to the escalating, post-election violence against the population of Côte d’Ivoire in late 2010 and early 2011, the UN Security Council, on 30 March 2011, unanimously adopted resolution 1975 condemning the gross human rights violations committed by supporters of both ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and President Ouattara. The resolution cited "the primary responsibility of each State to protect civilians," called for the immediate transfer of power to President Ouattara, the victor in the elections, and reaffirmed that the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) could use "all necessary means to protect life and property." In an effort to protect the people of Côte d’Ivoire from further atrocities, UNOCI on 4 April 2011 began a military operation, and President Gbagbo’s hold on power ended on 11 April when he was arrested by President Ouattara’s forces. In November 2011, President Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity as an "indirect co-perpetrator" of murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts. On 26 July 2012, the Council adopted resolution 2062 renewing the mandate of UNOCI until 31 July 2013.

South Sudan (2011)

On 8 July 2011, the Security Council, in resolution 1996, established a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), to — among other things — advise and assist the government in fulfilling its responsibility to protect civilians. South Sudan officially became an independent country on 9 July 2011, the climax of a process made possible by a 2005 peace deal that ended a long civil war. In December 2013, fighting between pro- and anti-Government forces began, causing the displacement of approximately 706,000 people, 77,000 of whom sought refuge at UNMISS bases. In February 2014, the Security Council reiterated its steadfast support for UNMISS and its vital mission on behalf of the international community to protect civilians in South Sudan, including foreign nationals, as well as conduct human rights monitoring and investigations, and facilitate assistance to populations in need.

Yemen (2011)

On 21 October 2011, resolution 2014 condemned human rights violations by the Yemeni authorities and encouraged an inclusive Yemeni-led political process of transition of power, including the holding of early Presidential elections. This resolution explicitly recalled the Yemeni Government’s "primary responsibility to protect its population."

Syria (2012)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stressed the urgent need for a political solution to end the crisis in Syria, which over the past threeyears has claimed more than 100,000 lives and led to a dire humanitarian crisis. He has called on the region and the international community, in particular the Security Council, to find unity and lend full support to the efforts of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, to help the Syrian people reach a political solution to the conflict

Both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have strongly condemned the continued "widespread and systematic" human rights violations in Syria and demanded that the government immediately cease all violence and protect its people. The High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and urged the Security Council to assume its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.

"The Government of Syria is manifestly failing to protect its populations," the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said in a statement in December 2012. "The international community must act on the commitment made by all Heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, including their incitement," said Mr. Dieng.

Central African Republic (2013)

The conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) erupted when Séléka rebels launched attacks in December 2012, and has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as mainly Christian militias have taken up arms.  On 10 October 2013, in resolution 2121, the Security Council emphasized "the primary responsibility of the Central African authorities to protect the population, as well as to ensure the security and unity in its territory", and stressed "their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law." In March 2014, the UN Secretary-General outlined his proposal for the establishment of a nearly 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation in the CAR.

Reports of the Secretary-General

Implementing the responsibility to protect (2009)

Based on the outcome document of the 2005 World Summit, a 2009 report by the Secretary-General outlined a strategy around three pillars of the responsibility to protect:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the UN Charter.

Early Warning, Assessment and the Responsibility to Protect (2010)

The Secretary-General’s report on early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect identified gaps and proposed ways to improve the UN’s ability to use early warnings more effectively, including information from field operations, and improve early, flexible and balanced responses where there is risk of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or ethnic cleansing.

The Role of Regional and Sub-regional Arrangements (2011)

This report by the Secretary-General emphasized the need for global-regional collaboration to help implement the responsibility to protect. The report identified gaps and proposed ways for the UN to strengthen its cooperation and draw on information from regional and sub-regional arrangements to identify signs of danger and undertake or support timely and effective preventative action at the sub-regional, regional, or global level. While emphasizing that the responsibility to protect is universal and each region "must move forward," the report acknowledged that "each region will operationalize the principle at its own pace and in its own way."

The Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response (2012)

The Secretary-General's fourth report on the responsibility to protect, presented in September 2012, examined the idea of a "timely and decisive response" when a State failed to protect its people, including the range of tools and partners available, and the close connection between prevention and response.

State Responsibility and Prevention (2013)

The Secretary-General's fifth report on the responsibility to protect, published in August 2013, focuses on prevention. The report aims to provide analysis and strategies that can help States to fulfil their responsibilities to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

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Responsibility to Protect — Interview with Ms. Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.

The Secretary-General’s Special Advisers

In 2004, the UN Secretary-General appointed the first Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Juan Méndez, followed by Francis Deng in 2007 and Adama Dieng in 2012. The Special Adviser is responsible for:

  • collecting information on massive and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law;
  • acting as a mechanism of early warning to the Secretary-General, and through him to the Security Council;
  • making recommendations to the Security Council, through the Secretary-General, on actions to prevent or halt genocide;
  • and liaising with the United Nations system on activities for the prevention of genocide.

In 2008, the Secretary-General appointed Edward Luck as his Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect. Mr. Luck was succeeded in 2013, by Ms. Jennifer Welsh, then in 2016 by Mr. Ivan Šimonović, and in 2019 by Ms. Karen Smith. The Special Adviser is responsible for the further development and refinement of the concept as well as for the continuation of the political dialogue with Member States and other stakeholders on further steps toward implementation.

The joint office on Genocide Prevention and on the Responsibility to Protect is tasked with preserving and enhancing existing arrangements, including for capacity building and for the gathering and analysis of information from the field, while adding value on its own in terms of new arrangements for advocacy, cross-sectoral assessment, common policy, and cumulative learning on how to anticipate, prevent and respond to crises relating to the responsibility to protect.

Sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is; it can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war.

— Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura,
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

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The victims of modern armed conflict are far more likely to be civilians than soldiers. According to UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, the vast majority of casualties in today’s wars are among civilians, mostly women and children. Women in particular can face devastating forms of sexual violence, which are sometimes deployed systematically to achieve military or political objectives.

Rape committed during war is often intended to terrorize the population, break up families, destroy communities, and, in some instances, change the ethnic make-up of the next generation. Sometimes it is also used to deliberately infect women with HIV or render women from the targeted community incapable of bearing children.

In Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of genocide in 1994.

UN agencies estimate that more than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), more than 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003), up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998.

Even after conflict has ended, the impacts of sexual violence persist, including unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and stigmatization. Widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict, as a consequence of insecurity and impunity. And meeting the needs of survivors — including medical care, HIV treatment, psychological support, economic assistance and legal redress — requires resources that most postconflict countries do not have.

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It happened during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda brutal and widespread sexual violence. The horrors that occurred left a devastating legacy that is still felt throughout the country. More than a decade later, the Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) labelled this kind of violence a major threat to national security.

Recognizing Sexual Violence as an International Crime

For centuries, sexual violence in conflict was tacitly accepted as unavoidable. A 1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict PDF notes that historically, armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war. During World War II, all sides of the conflict were accused of mass rapes, yet neither of the two courts set up by the victorious allied countries to prosecute suspected war crimes — in Tokyo and Nuremberg — recognized the crime of sexual violence.

It was not until 1992, in the face of widespread rapes of women in the former Yugoslavia, that the issue came to the attention of the UN Security Council. On 18 December 1992, the Council declared the "massive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in Bosnia and Herzegovina" an international crime that must be addressed.

Subsequently, the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, 1993) included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination, when committed in armed conflict and directed against a civilian population. In 2001, the ICTY became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the Court expanded the definition of slavery as a crime against humanity to include sexual slavery. Previously, forced labor was the only type of slavery to be viewed as a crime against humanity.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR, 1994) also declared rape to be a war crime and a crime against humanity. In 1998, the ICTR became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime of genocide (used to perpetrate genocide). The judgment against a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, held that rape and sexual assault constituted acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Tutsi ethnic group.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in force since July 2002, includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or "any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" as a crime against humanity when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way. Arrest warrants issued by the ICC include several counts of rape as both a war crime and a crime against humanity.

Although changing international and national laws are major steps towards punishing and ending sexual violence, they cannot be successful without a fundamental change in people’s attitudes towards the sexual abuse of women.

"Right now, the woman who gets raped is the one who is stigmatized and excluded for it," says Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, director of Panzi hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "Beyond laws, we have to get social sanction on the side of the woman. We need to get to a point where the victim receives the support of the community, and the man who rapes is the one who is stigmatized and excluded and penalized by the whole community."

The UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council has done much in recent years to help raise awareness and trigger action against sexual violence in conflict:

  • Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) called on Member States to increase the participation of women in the "prevention and resolution of conflicts" and in the "maintenance and promotion of peace and security." It called upon parties involved in armed conflict to abide by international laws that protect the rights of civilian women and girls and to incorporate policies and procedures that protect women from gender-based crimes such as rape and sexual assault.
  • Security Council resolution 1820 (2008) called for an end to the use of acts of sexual violence against women and girls as a tactic of war and an end to impunity of the perpetrators. It requested the Secretary-General and the United Nations to provide protection to women and girls in UN-led security endeavours, including refugee camps, and to invite the participation of women in all aspects of the peace process.
  • Security Council resolution 1888 (2009) detailed measures to further protect women and children from sexual violence in conflict situations, such as asking the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative to lead and coordinate the UN’s work on the issue, to send a team of experts to situations of particular concern, and to mandate peacekeepers to protect women and children.
  • Security Council resolution 1889 (2009) reaffirmed resolution 1325, condemned continuing sexual violence against women in conflict situations, and urged UN Member States and civil society to consider the need for protection and empowerment of women and girls, including those associated with armed groups, in post-conflict programming.
  • Security Council resolution 1960 (2010) asked the Secretary-General to list those parties credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of sexual violence in situations on the Council’s agenda. It also called for the establishment of monitoring, analysis, and reporting arrangements specific to conflict-related sexual violence.
  • Security Council resolution 2106 (2013) aimed to strengthen the monitoring and prevention of sexual violence in conflict.
  • Security Council resolution 2122 (2013) reiterated the importance of women's involvement in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building.

UN Action — Coordinating UN Efforts to End Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

In 2007, the work of various UN agencies to combat sexual violence was put under one umbrella: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, uniting the work of 13 UN entities. It is a concerted effort by the UN System to improve coordination and accountability, amplify programming and advocacy, and support national efforts to prevent sexual violence and respond effectively to the needs of survivors.

UN Action has, for example, supported the design and implementation of the first-ever Comprehensive Strategy on Combating Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the Joint Government-UN Programme on Sexual Violence in Liberia.

Funded by the Australian Government’s Aid Agency (AusAID), UN Action has also, together with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, documented best peacekeeping practices in addressing conflict-related sexual violence. From initiating firewood patrols in Darfur to establishing market escorts, night patrols and early-warning systems in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice catalogues direct and indirect efforts to combat sexual violence during and in the wake of war.

UNiTE to End Violence against Women

In 2008, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched UNiTE to End Violence against Women — a campaign to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, in times of war and peace. The campaign brings together a host of UN agencies and joins forces with individuals, civil society and governments to put an end to violence against women in all its forms.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative

In 2010, following Security Council resolution 1888, the Secretary-General appointed Margot Wallström as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She was succeeded, in September 2012, by Zainab Hawa Bangura.

The job of the Special Representative is to provide coherent and strategic leadership, and to promote cooperation and coordination through UN Action. Upon taking up her post, Ms. Bangura, the former Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone, outlined six objectives she intends to pursue:

  • ending impunity for perpetrators and seeking justice for victims;
  • protecting and empowering civilians who face sexual violence in conflict, in particular women and girls who are targeted disproportionately by this crime;
  • mobilising political leadership to address this issue;
  • strengthening coordination and ensuring a more coherent response from the UN system;
  • increasing recognition of rape as a tactic of war;
  • and, finally, emphasizing national ownership, leadership and responsibility in the fight to put an end to this scourge.

The Secretary-General’s annual report

The latest report of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict was presented to the Security Council on 14 March 2013. The report reviews 22 conflict areas, which for the first time include Mali, and presents information on parties to conflict credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence. The report also emphasizes the urgency of ensuring that sexual violence considerations are explicitly and consistently reflected in peace processes and peace agreements, and in all Security Sector Reform and Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration processes in which the United Nations is involved.

The 2012 report, "Conflict-related sexual violence: report of the Secretary-General," released on 13 January 2012, for the first time named some of the military forces, militia and other armed groups suspected of being among the worst offenders. The groups listed in the report include the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan, armed militia groups and former armed forces in Côte d’Ivoire, and armed groups and elements of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The report also provides examples of how sexual violence has threatened security and impeded peacebuilding in post-conflict situations, such as in Chad, the Central African Republic, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how it has been used in the context of elections, political strife and civil unrest in Egypt, Guinea, Kenya and Syria, among others.

Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes

A Tool for Prevention

Atrocity crimes are considered to be the most serious crimes against humankind. Their status as international crimes is based on the belief that the acts associated with them affect the core dignity of human beings.

All of us have a responsibility to ask ourselves what we can do to protect populations from the most serious international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These crimes continue to be perpetrated in many places across the world. Although calls for accountability are now the norm when such crimes are committed, impunity is all too common. We can and must do more, much earlier, to save lives and prevent societies from collapsing and descending into horrific violence.

Framework of Analysis [PDF 3.8 MB]
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When to Refer to a Situation as "Genocide"

Guidance Note

The question is sometimes asked as to whether specific events, past or present, can be referred to as “genocide.” It is important to adhere to the correct usage of the term, for several reasons; (i) the term is frequently misused in reference to large scale, grave crimes committed against particular populations; (ii) the emotive nature of the term and political sensitivity surrounding its use; and (iii) the potential legal implications associated with a determination of genocide.

This note aims to provide guidance on the use of the term “genocide,” based primarily on legal rather than historical or factual considerations.

Genocide [PDF 0.6 MB]
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Plan of Action for Religious Leaders

Religious leaders can play a particularly important role in influencing the behaviour of those who share their beliefs. Unfortunately, religion has sometimes been misused to justify incitement to violence and discrimination, and it is vital that religious leaders from all faiths show leadership.

This Plan of Action, the result of two years of consultations with leaders from different faiths and religions around the world, includes a rich and broad range of suggestions for ways in which religious leaders and actors can prevent incitement to violence and contribute to peace and stability. All religions teach respect for life, and recognize human beings as fundamentally equal. These principles summon us to show respect for all human beings, even those with whom we might profoundly disagree or whose cultures might seem most alien to us

Plan of Action [PDF 11.2 MB]
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