8 September 2014

Deputy-Secretary-General Says ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Must Be Translated into More Systematic Implementation at Early Warnings of Atrocity Crimes

8 September 2014
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Deputy-Secretary-General Says ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Must Be Translated


into More Systematic Implementation at Early Warnings of Atrocity Crimes


Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks to the General Assembly informal interactive dialogue on “Fulfilling our Collective Responsibility:  International Assistance and the Responsibility to Protect”, in New York, 8 September:

I am indeed very glad to give introductory remarks to the opening panel with such eminent panellists and you as moderator, Adama.  As President of the General Assembly in 2005, I was helping develop the commitment to the R2P [responsibility to protect] made by Heads of State and Government at the World Summit, which was so well prepared by my predecessor as President of the General Assembly, Jean Ping, who is present here at the podium today.  It was a powerful signal of readiness to draw lessons from past failures.  That initial commitment has since evolved into a broad consensus.  This is, in large part, thanks to the General Assembly dialogues such as this.  And I think we need to continue to discuss this so that this concept is turned into reality to as high a degree as possible.

However, until this consensus is translated into political agreement on practical prevention and protection, it is of limited value, let’s face it.  Member States and the United Nations must now turn growing support for the responsibility to protect into more systematic implementation when we are confronted with early evidence or risk factors of atrocity crimes.  The unspeakable acts of blind violence that continue to be perpetrated in crises around the world illustrate how urgent this work is for us.

The latest report of the Secretary-General, on Pillar II of the R2P, makes a crucial contribution by elaborating how international assistance can help States protect their populations.  This area of R2P has received less attention, but it is absolutely essential for practical progress.

The report outlines the various actors that can fulfil this collective responsibility to assist and suggests how this assistance can be provided.  It argues that international support is most effective when it respects national ownership, when it establishes mutual commitments, when it avoids inadvertently doing harm, and when it remains flexible and prioritizes prevention.  These are to me some basic principles to keep in mind.

The report also focuses on risk factors, in particular the persistent inequalities that cause tensions very often between different groups in society.

The report identifies three main types of international support:  encouragement, capacity-building, and the provision of protection assistance.  It points to a range of tools that can be mobilized at all stages, from the earliest warning signs to imminent crisis.

First, international actors should encourage States to fulfil their national responsibility to protect.  Raising awareness of risks and disseminating legal standards and norms can help to broaden and deepen a culture of atrocity prevention.  Peer-to-peer encouragement is often the most effective way of responding to the early warning signs.  It is encouraging to see emerging action in regions which to date have had little capacity.  Preventive diplomacy can also remind national authorities of their responsibility to protect and of the costs of not doing so, which are so obvious in so many tragic examples around the world.

Second, we know that helping to build capacity for effective, legitimate and inclusive governance strengthens national resilience to atrocity crimes.  The report endorses these approaches.  But it goes further and names seven “specific inhibitors” that play a powerful role in counteracting the dynamics that can lead to atrocity crimes.  These include a professional and accountable security sector; it includes impartial institutions during political transitions; it includes independent judicial and human rights institutions; it includes capacity for risk analysis and early response; it includes local conflict resolution capacity; it includes capability to counteract prejudice and hate speech; and finally, it includes effective and legitimate transitional justice.

Third, States may request assistance to help protect their populations.  This support can deny potential perpetrators the means of committing atrocity crimes.  Examples include stemming the flow of small arms and weapons and combating illicit trafficking.  This support could also “boost” a State’s own protection capacity.  The deployment of civilian expertise can help strengthen national efforts to resolve disputes, monitor human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and protect civilians during a humanitarian emergency.  Peacekeeping and stabilization assistance, which incorporates a strong focus on protecting civilian populations, can help national authorities establish basic security and confront perpetrators of atrocity crimes.

We know from experience that these three types of assistance yield results.  I will give you a couple of concrete examples.  In Kenya, diplomatic engagement played an important role in managing the crisis in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, as you may recall.  Technical and financial assistance for reforms to Kenya’s independent electoral institutions helped restore public confidence for the 2013 elections.  This helped mitigate the risk that violence would recur.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights provided information to the Commission of Inquiry investigating allegations of serious violations of human rights following the 2010 presidential election.  The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire also played a role, using its broadcasting capacity to help promote peace and counteract hate speech.

There are many more examples, from support for the creation of an ethnic relations committee in Guyana, to the development of a new legal framework for the functioning of the intelligence services in Colombia, to sustained regional stabilization and civilian assistance in the Solomon Islands.

As these cases demonstrate, this is an expansive and challenging agenda.  No single tool will do the job.  Because of this, success depends on the political will to make the protection of populations a priority through multiple avenues at all levels:  national, regional and international.

The Secretary-General has already taken a step in this direction through the development of the “Rights Up Front” Action Plan, a system-wide initiative to raise the standing of human rights and to improve prevention and early action.

Other actors are taking similar steps.  The European Union has strengthened its early warning and conflict analysis, and is developing new institutional capacity for atrocity crimes prevention.  It is also using a range of tools to deliver practical assistance to States facing atrocity risks.  Other regions, not least the African Union and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], have also developed mechanisms that play a crucial role in implementing Pillar II.

This is why I am especially pleased to welcome Dr. Jean Ping, my predecessor as President of the General Assembly in 2005, and Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, a friend and fellow former Foreign Minister as well as Secretary-General of ASEAN, also a panellist at today’s event.  I express my satisfaction to have them on the panel.  Both bring deep insight and personal experience to bear on these issues.  And I am also pleased that our Special Adviser Jennifer Walsh is joining us here. 

Before I turn to the panel, let me conclude with a plea.  Too often, rhetoric has outpaced action when it comes to preventing atrocity crimes.  How many times have we not said “never again”?  A number of current crises are challenging the international community to live up to its commitments.  The lives of millions of people and the credibility of this Organization hinge on our ability to do far better than we have done to date.  As the Secretary-General’s latest report states, “the time has come for a stronger global partnership to implement our collective responsibility to protect”.  I thank you.

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