The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations, on 9 December 1948. It embodies a collective determination to protect people from brutality and to prevent repetition of the horrors witnessed by the world during the Second World War.
International law often emerges from centuries of custom and general principles. This was not the case for the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The Convention, and the word “genocide”, largely owe their existence to the work of one man, Raphael Lemkin. Genocide had existed for millennia. But Lemkin saw it for what it is, understood it, and named it for the first time.
Lemkin lost 49 members of his own family in the Holocaust. But well before that, he was campaigning for the world to recognize mass murder as an international crime.
The Nuremburg trials punished the Nazi leaders for the crimes they had committed against humanity. But Lemkin was concerned with the future, with protecting vulnerable groups, in order to prevent what he called “future Hitlers”.
That is why the Genocide Convention is preventive at its core, and punishes specific acts that are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.
These include killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Preventing genocide means paying close attention to these provisions. Genocide is deliberate and premeditated and requires serious preparations that take time. Those preparations should give the world time to act.
Tragically, the international community has sometimes failed to heed the warning signs and take early and decisive action. Rather than preventing genocide, we are still reacting to it, often too late.
Since Nuremberg, we have failed to prevent genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia. But in the past two decades, we have at least started to hold perpetrators to account.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have all convicted perpetrators for the crime of genocide. The work of these courts reflects a welcome resolve to punish genocide.
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, seventy years after the Genocide Convention was adopted, people are still being killed, raped, their homes torched, their lands confiscated, just because of who they are.
In Iraq, the violent extremists of Daesh brutally targeted the Yazidi people for murder, sexual slavery and trafficking, so courageously described by survivor and Nobel laureate Nadia Murad.
I am extremely concerned about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who have been systematically killed, tortured, raped and burnt alive, victims of what has rightly been called ethnic cleansing. I will never forget the bone-chilling accounts I heard from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh earlier this year.
Elsewhere around the world, racism, hate speech, violent misogyny, antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of xenophobia are on the rise. We now know that dehumanizing language is not only evil in itself. It may also sow the seeds for far more evil acts, including genocide.
It is incumbent on all of us, individually and collectively, to reject every single attempt to target people because of their nationality, ethnicity, religion or race, or any other form of identity.
That means speaking out. It means nurturing the courage and the political will to act decisively, at the right time, and to support others when they take action.
My generation believed that after the Holocaust, we would never see genocide again. We were wrong.
Modernity does not protect us from genocide. The digital age does not protect us from genocide. Nothing but our own actions, based on our values and principles, can protect us from genocide. The Genocide Convention offers an essential legal framework for our efforts.
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
As we mark this 70th anniversary, we also commemorate the dignity of the victims of genocide. In doing so, we commit to making sure that communities affected by this crime can tell their stories, create a historical record of what happened and, where appropriate, receive reparations.
I am grateful to all those who are working to preserve the testimony of genocide survivors, our most effective leaders and guides. I look forward to today’s demonstration of one innovative way to educate young people and future generations about the horrors of genocide.
The Genocide Convention has been ratified or acceded to by 149 States; 45 Member States have not become party to it. I urge those 45 States to consider becoming party as an urgent priority. Universal participation will send a unifying signal of resolve in this 70th anniversary year.
I also call upon those States that are parties to the Convention to back their commitments with action.
Preventing and punishing genocide is the duty, the responsibility and the obligation of the entire international community.