While the responsibility to protect rests with national Governments, the international community has a duty to act when States themselves are the culprits of ethnic cleansing, are unable to prevent genocide or cannot ensure accountability for war crimes, delegates told General Assembly today.
Opening a two-day debate on the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, some Members States cautioned against using the responsibility to protect concept as a pretext to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign countries for political gain. Some warned against the use of double standards, especially when a handful of States in the Security Council use the power of the veto in cases of crimes against humanity.
“We must do more and we must do better,” Maria Luiza Viotti, Secretary-General António Guterres’ Chef de Cabinet, said on his behalf. The Assembly had before it the Secretary-General’s report “Responsibility to protect: lessons learned for prevention” (document A/73/898), which outlines specific actions to address hate speech, nurture diversity and inclusion, and translate early warnings into decisive action towards prevention.
Civilians continue to be targeted deliberately and systematically in acts that could amount to genocide, Ms. Viotti said, stressing that none of these crimes are inevitable or could ever be justified. Open and frank discussions like the one held today are essential to dispel misconceptions and mistrust and address double standards, she continued, adding that all Member States have a responsibility to protect their citizens. This duty entails preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement. The international community has a responsibility to support Member States in this regard, including through diplomatic, humanitarian and other means that could help prevent ethnic crimes and crimes against humanity.
“Hate speech is often a precursor to hate crimes,” she said, spotlighting recommendations in the Secretary-General’s report. In addition to conducting national risk and resilience assessments, Member States can support initiatives that reduce the risk of atrocity crimes, including by focusing on alleviating poverty and promoting inclusion, as outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In the ensuring discussion, delegates underlined a need for Governments to incorporate mass atrocity prevention in national legislation and institutions. Many expressed concerns about the stalemate often seen in the Security Council and underscored the role of other intergovernmental mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Council, as well as the General Assembly, itself, in helping to address and prevent heinous crimes and to ensure accountability. They also stressed the need to promote and increase women’s role and participation in political life, peacekeeping missions and reconciliation mechanisms.
Some speakers described specific experiences from their countries’ recent history.
Robert Kayinamura (Rwanda) said that, while the duty to protect lies primary with Member States, the international community has a moral authority and obligation to assist Member States in fulfilling this responsibility. “We know from our own experience in 1994 that, if a State fails to protect its own citizens from genocide, the international community has a responsibility to intervene through coercive means to halt acts of genocide and mass atrocity,” he said. Instead of focusing on a regime change, the intervention should concentrate on halting the crimes and protecting civilians. “We need to avoid the United Nations being a fire extinguisher,” he warned, underscoring a need to focus on preventive measures and on sustaining peace.
James Roscoe (United Kingdom) said that the international community is failing in its responsibility to protect, citing figures from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that 70 million people have been displaced. States must protect — not harm — their people. Where atrocities occur, the international community must investigate and hold perpetrators of crimes accountable. “There are too many examples of States unwilling to meet their responsibility to uphold international law,” he said, expressing concern for the mass displacement in Venezuela, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and the use of barrel bombs in Idlib.
Masud Bin Momen (Bangladesh) said the world needs to show that it is not ready to tolerate the barbaric acts that were committed against the Rohingya people. Myanmar failed to protect its own people, to cooperate bilaterally and with the international community, including the United Nations’ independent fact‑finding mission. Despite the failure to prevent atrocities in Myanmar, there is still an opportunity to compensate. The international community, led by the United Nations, must recommit to its goals of atrocity prevention. “The solution to this problem lies first and foremost with Myanmar authorities,” he said, “and they will have to resolve it by creating the conditions conducive for the Rohingya population to return home in safety.”
Some Member States expressed concern that the “responsibility to protect” concept has been used to advance political agendas.
Hmway Hmway Khyne (Myanmar) said that countries should be able to develop policies and mechanisms best suited to their conditions to prevent conflict and peacefully settle disputes. “National ownership must be ensured in preventing atrocity crimes,” she said, noting the universally accepted principles of respect for States’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and their political independence. It is also crucial that judgments or categorizations of a situation as a specified atrocity crime, or decisions to invoke the responsibility to protect must be made on well-founded and unbiased information.
Samuel Moncada (Venezuela) said the concept is being used as an excuse to drive regime change and loot the resources of sovereign States, including in his own country. Much has been said about prevention, but prevention also means respecting all of the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter, he said, emphasizing that the notion of responsibility to protect is of concern to many, as States lack agreement on what form of action should be taken. “We cannot speak of human rights while imposing sanctions,” he added.
Bashar Ja'afari (Syria) also rejected the politization of the responsibility to protect, noting that some countries are using the responsibility to protect principle to violate the United Nations Charter. Air strikes and other attacks are being “hidden under the humanitarian cloak”. Representatives of some Governments continue to insist that they must intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign States to prevent humanitarian disasters. He cautioned Member States against accepting the “instrumentalization of the responsibility to protect” so that some can carry out military aggressions, intervene in the affairs of sovereign countries, and as a result, displace millions of people.
Bille Herman (Denmark), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends on the Responsibility to Protect, noted that the Security Council has been unable to take timely and decisive action in multiple atrocity situations. He further reiterated the increasingly vital role of the General Assembly and Human Rights Council in actively working to prevent such crimes. The 2030 Agenda provides a framework to achieve a better and more sustainable future and could contribute to preventing such crimes, he said, adding that “no country or region is immune to the risk factors of atrocity crimes” and expressing concern about the rise in incitement, hate speech and xenophobia.
Juan Sandoval Mendiolea (Mexico), speaking on behalf of French-Mexican Initiative on Restriction of the Veto, said the international record in responding to extreme human suffering is far from adequate. “We are convinced that the veto is not a privilege, but an international responsibility,” he said. “Our initiative seeks a voluntary and collective pledge by the five permanent members of the Security Council not to use the veto in cases of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, in order to allow the Security Council to take effective action.” The initiative is already supported by 101 States, he said, calling on all Member States to joint this call. “In the face of atrocities, political agendas are simply not justifiable,” he said.
João Pedro Vale de Almeida (European Union) said the bloc’s Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia criminalizes public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by references to race, color, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. Hate speech is defined as a criminal offense also when it occurs online, he said, noting that the European Union, along with social media companies, share a collective responsibility to ensure that the Internet does not become a haven to incite violence and hatred.
Member States also noted ways their countries were focusing on curbing incitement and hate speech, including by learning from the past and looking towards the future by building inclusive communities today.
Andrejs Pildegovičs (Latvia), also speaking on behalf of Estonia and Lithuania, warned against attempts to downgrade atrocities committed by former totalitarian regimes. He urged the need to focus on prevention rather than response, adding that “once the point of acute violence has been reached, options to respond to crises are quite limited”.
Ghasaq Yousif Abdalla Shaheen (United Arab Emirates) said that her Government has already taken action towards promoting inclusion, peace and coexistence. By declaring 2019 “The Year of Tolerance”, the United Arab Emirates aims to curb xenophobia, discrimination and racism.
Ion Jinga (Romania) shared some positive national developments, underscoring that the recently established Network for Genocide Prevention and Multidisciplinary Research of Mass Graves focuses on building capacities to prevent and investigate genocide. Efforts include training State officials involved in criminal investigations and judges in the matter of the Holocaust, genocide prevention and mass graves investigations.
Maleeha Lodhi (Pakistan) said it is critical to act in a consistent and uniform manner to all transgressions. “We should not allow human suffering to be selectively prioritized for political convenience or to serve narrow interests,” she said, cautioning against becoming oblivious to the suffering of those who have been displaced and marginalized. She highlighted the gross violations particularly in occupied territories that continue to be the subject of myriad meetings at the United Nations. Highlighting the role played by hate speech to incite violence, she said Islamophobia has become the most prevalent contemporary expression of this vile narrative.
Kira Christianne Danganan Azucena (Philippines) said part of prevention efforts is discouraging the misuse of the concept of the responsibility to protect for political purposes to justify foreign intervention in domestic law enforcement. “That discredits it and invites the view that all foreign intervention is just collusion with the evil that State seeks to stamp out,” she said. Any application of the responsibility to protect principle must strictly be according to the parameters of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.
Also speaking today representatives of Norway (on behalf of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden), Marshall Islands (on behalf of the Pacific Small Island Developing States), Australia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Slovakia, Fiji (on behalf of the Pacific Island Forum Group), Croatia, Japan, Chile, Switzerland, Republic of Korea, Poland, Germany, Armenia, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Uruguay, China, Canada, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras, Hungary, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ghana, Sudan, Belgium, Netherlands, Qatar, Andorra, Turkey, Malta, Albania, Portugal and Morocco.
The General Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. on Friday, 28 June, to conclude its discussion and take up other items on its agenda.