New York

05 September 2012

Secretary-General's remarks to General Assembly Informal Interactive Dialogue on "The Responsibility to Protect: Timely and Decisive Response"

I welcome this opportunity to present my fourth annual report on the responsibility to protect.

I would like to start by expressing my deep gratitude to Professors Ed Luck and Francis Deng for their distinguished service as my Special Advisers on the Responsibility to Protect and the Prevention of Genocide.

Let us all now give our strong support to Mr. Adama Dieng, my new Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The adoption of the responsibility to protect at the 2005 World Summit was a signal achievement, not only for the United Nations, but for the people of the world.

The concept arose out of the brutal legacy of the 20th century, and in particular the appalling instances in which the machinery of state was used for systematic slaughter of innocent civilians while the world, for the most part, stood by.

The Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, and other large-scale tragedies underlined the failure of individual States to live up to their responsibilities and their obligations under international humanitarian law.

These events also raised troubling questions about the will and capacity of the international community to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement.

“Never again” is the oft-heard cry.  But I am haunted by the fear that we do not live up to this call.

The responsibility to protect is a concept whose time has come.  For too many millions of victims, it should have come much earlier.

The dialogues we have held since 2009 have broadened the basis for consensus and provided valuable insights about the three pillars of the responsibility to protect – the connections among them and the links between prevention and response.

We have agreed that the concept does not stand in contradiction to state sovereignty.  Rather, it reaffirms sovereignty as a positive responsibility in which Governments are meant to protect their populations.

We have recognized that States must help each other to meet the protection challenge.  International cooperation can play a crucial role in building up a state’s capacity to address tensions, inequalities, discrimination and other precursors of atrocity crimes.

And we have welcomed the clarity the concept has brought to the question of who should act, and when: in the first instance, states; but also, where circumstances dictate, the international community – and in particular the Security Council.

This year, we focus on timely and decisive response – on what we, as a community of conscience sworn to uphold the UN Charter, should do when a State manifestly fails to protect its people.

This is the ultimate test of the responsibility to protect.

We all agree that sovereignty must not be a shield behind which States commit grave crimes against their people.  But achieving prevention and protection can be difficult.

In recent years, we have shown how good offices, preventive diplomacy, mediation, commissions of inquiry and other peaceful means can help pull countries back from the brink of mass violence.

My earlier reports, as well as my own five-year action agenda, place a strong emphasis on early warning, early action, a preventive approach to human rights and efforts to strengthen the rule of law.

However, when non-coercive measures fail or are considered inadequate, enforcement under Chapter VII of the Charter will need to be considered by the appropriate intergovernmental bodies.  This includes carefully crafted sanctions and, in extreme circumstances, the use of force. 

There are understandable concerns related to selectivity – why political organs have invoked the concept in some instances and not in others.

There have been disagreements on the oversight of implementation measures, differences over the interpretation of Security Council resolutions, and dismay at the loss of innocent lives in operations undertaken to protect populations.

The concept of “responsibility while protecting” introduced by the Government of Brazil is thus a welcome initiative.

There should be no misuse of the responsibility to protect.  But fears of its possible misuse should not inhibit us in the face of incitement and grave violence.

There are also concerns about a tendency to see the responsibility to protect and the protection of civilians in armed conflict as one and the same.  While the two concepts share elements, there are fundamental differences.

The protection of civilians agenda relates to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in situations of armed conflict.

The responsibility to protect is limited to four of the most egregious and violent crimes. They are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.  With the exception of war crimes, these may occur in situations other than armed conflict.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the past year-and-a-half, the responsibility to protect has been front and centre as never before.

Security Council resolutions on Libya and Yemen referred explicitly to the concept.  General Assembly resolutions have cited the responsibility to protect with regard to Syria, and the Human Rights Council has done so on Syria and Libya.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights and the two Special Advisers have issued statements calling for compliance with the responsibility to protect in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I, too, have sounded the alarm.

There have been important successes: the defence of democracy in Cote d’Ivoire, the protection for Libyans facing massive violence.

But the aftermath of these undertakings has turned problematic.  Some states have said some of the steps exceeded the resolutions’ intent, and have been hesitant to venture down that path again.

There was a good reason to believe that the pendulum was swinging decisively in the direction of greater protection.

In seeking better means for implementing our individual and collective responsibilities, we must be sure not to undo all the progress that has been achieved.

We must move forward.

We cannot allow vulnerable populations today to be held hostage to disagreements about the past.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The situation in Syria is a case in point.

In January, I underscored that Syria was a critical test of our will and capacity to implement the responsibility to protect.  In the ensuing eight months, we have seen the immense human cost of failing to protect.

Six weeks ago, in visiting the memorial at Srebrenica, I said I did not want my successors to apologize years from now for what we failed to do today in Syria.

I commend the General Assembly for its proactive response to the Syrian crisis. 

It has shown that, while moments of unity in the Security Council have been few and far between, the rest of the world body need not be silent.

We cannot look the other way while the increasing sectarian violence spirals out of control, the humanitarian emergency escalates, and the crisis spills over borders. .

And indeed the UN family is doing everything it can on the ground to help those fleeing from the violence.  Our observer mission, while it was in Syria, sought to gather reliable, real-time information about events so that nobody can claim they did not know.

But these efforts will not avert the worst if they are not accompanied by action by influential governments to find a political solution.

The Council’s paralysis does the Syrian people harm.  It also damages its own credibility and weakens a concept that was adopted with such hope and expectations.

Let us by all means continue to talk through the responsibility to protect in all its aspects.  Each year we achieve greater precision and common understanding.

But let us recognize that we face an urgent test here and now. Words must become deeds.  Promise must become practice.

You have all seen the horrible images and reports coming out of Syria.  Aerial bombardments of civilians.  Mothers weeping, clutching their dead children in their arms.

Inaction cannot be an option for our community of nations. We cannot stand by while populations fall victim to these grave crimes and violations.

We must uphold the core responsibilities of the United Nations.

Thank you.