There can be no more important issue, and no more binding obligation, than the prevention of genocide.
Indeed, this may be considered one of the original purposes of the United Nations. The “untold sorrow” which the scourge of war had brought to mankind, at the time when our Organization was established, included genocide on a horrific scale. The words “never again” were on everyone’s lips.
Three years later, in 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It entered into force in 1951, and over 130 States are now parties to it.
Under article 1 of that Convention, the contracting parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or time of war, is a crime under international law, which they undertake to prevent and to punish.
And yet, genocide has happened again, in our time. And States even refused to call it by its name, to avoid fulfilling their obligations.
The events of the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, are especially shameful. The international community clearly had the capacity to prevent these events. But it lacked the will.
Those memories are especially painful for the United Nations, and painful and traumatic for me personally. In Rwanda in 1994, and at Srebrenica in 1995, we had peacekeeping troops on the ground at the very place and time where genocidal acts were being committed.
In Rwanda, some of those peacekeepers lost their lives trying to defend the victims. All honour to them.
But instead of reinforcing our troops, we withdrew them.
In both cases, the gravest mistakes were made by Member States, particularly in the way decisions were taken in the Security Council. But all of us failed. As we heard, there should be no bystanders.
In November 1999, in my report to the General Assembly on the fall of Srebrenica, I drew attention to serious doctrinal and institutional failings within the United Nations, including a “pervasive ambivalence regarding the role of force in the pursuit of peace”, and “an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide”.
One month later, an independent inquiry that I had commissioned –- and which was chaired by a distinguished former prime minister of this country, Ingvar Carlsson -– diagnosed similar failings in our actions during the genocide in Rwanda: “a lack of resources and a lack of will to take on the commitment which would have been necessary to prevent or stop the genocide”.
Both reports contained important recommendations for improving the capacity, and changing the culture, of the United Nations. I have done my best to implement these, with some support from Member States.
Indeed, one of my constant concerns as Secretary-General has been to move the Organization from a culture of reaction to one of prevention -– in particular, prevention of armed conflict. This is highly relevant to your theme today, since it is in the course of armed conflicts that most genocides (although not all) have been carried out.
We must attack the roots of violence and genocide. These are intolerance, racism, tyranny, and the dehumanizing public discourse that denies whole groups of people their dignity and rights.
We must protect especially the rights of minorities, since they are genocide’s most frequent targets.
In too many parts of the world today, such a culture of prevention is rhetorical, at best.
And at the United Nations there are still conspicuous gaps in our capacity to give early warning of genocide or comparable crimes, and to analyse or manage the information that we do receive.
Urgent action is needed to correct this –- as the General Assembly recognized last July, when it passed a landmark resolution on the prevention of conflict. I thank the Swedish Government for its tireless work to get that resolution adopted. It seems logical and normal, but it took real hard work to get that resolution adopted.
But even the most perfect system of early warning will be useless unless States are able and willing to take action when warning is received.
To improve our capacity for action, I suggest we explore some new ideas. For instance, the States parties to the Genocide Convention should consider setting up a Committee on the Prevention of Genocide, which would meet periodically to review reports and make recommendations for action. Such bodies exist to help with the implementation of other international treaties. Why not for this one?
We should also consider establishing a Special Rapporteur on the prevention of genocide, who would be supported by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but would report directly to the Security Council –- making clear the link, which is often ignored until too late, between massive and systematic violations of human rights and threats to international peace and security.
As long ago as 1999, I felt obliged to warn the General Assembly of the dangers of inaction in the face of such massive violations.
I am very grateful to the Government of Canada, which responded to this warning by setting up the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The report of that Commission, published in 2001 under the title “The Responsibility to Protect”, has altered the terms of debate on this very difficult issue, in a most creative and promising way.
Thanks to the Commission, we now understand that the issue is not one of a right to intervention, but rather of a responsibility -– in the first instance, a responsibility of all States to protect their own populations, but ultimately a responsibility of the whole human race, to protect our fellow human beings from extreme abuse wherever and whenever it occurs.
This nascent doctrine offers great hope to humanity. I believe it will gradually gain wider acceptance, through debates both within and outside the United Nations.
One could say that it was already accepted –- at least implicitly -– when the United Nations set up international tribunals to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of genocide and other related crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And now the International Criminal Court seeks to apply the same principle more generally.
I sincerely hope the Court will be able to deter potential perpetrators of genocide and other large-scale abuses in the future. With time, the ethical standard that the Court represents should be gradually internalized and accepted by political and military leaders in all countries, and by combatants in all conflicts.
But that will only happen if there is also resolute action to apprehend the perpetrators, and to halt genocide when it occurs or appears imminent.
Genocide, whether imminent or ongoing, is practically always, if not by definition, a threat to the peace. It must be dealt with as such –- by strong and united political action and, in extreme cases, by military action.
And that means that we need clear ground rules to distinguish between genuine threats of genocide (or comparably massive violations of human rights), which require a military response, and other situations where the use of force would not be legitimate.
To sum up, Ladies and Gentlemen, as an international community we have a clear obligation to prevent genocide. I believe that collectively we also have the power to prevent it. The question is, do we have the will?
I long for the day when we can say with confidence that, confronted with a new Rwanda or a new Srebrenica, the world would respond effectively, and in good time.
But let us not delude ourselves. That day has not yet come. We must all do more to bring it closer.