Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



While modern history’s most influential document on mankind and another leading text had significantly expanded protections against violations of human rights, countries must do more to prevent mass atrocities and educate citizens about their protections under the law, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

“It is essential that we keep up the momentum, thereby enabling more and more people to stand up and claim their rights,” she said, noting that more than 90 countries had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most widely translated document in history, and 140 had ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

She noted, however, that for many people, the legal recourse and protections called for in those treaties remained an unfulfilled promise.  “I don’t believe any country in the world can sit back complacently when tens of millions of people around the world are still unaware that they have rights that they can demand, and that their Governments are accountable to them and a wide-ranging body of rights-based national and international law.”

Briefing on the sixtieth anniversary of the Genocide Convention, signed on 9 December 1948, and the Declaration, adopted the following day by the United Nations General Assembly, she said that, while States had expanded punishment for murdering people solely for belonging to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, far less had been achieved in preventing genocide.

The first mechanisms to hold perpetrators of genocide to account had been put in place some 15 years ago.  In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had handed down the first international conviction for genocide, finding a small-town Rwandan mayor guilty of nine counts of genocide and sentencing former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had also tried cases of genocide and other serious crimes, as had the International Criminal Court, created in 1998, and the Criminal Court for Cambodia.

“While these UN tribunals send out a strong message of deterrence and do help victims feel there is justice and accountability, there is clearly not a sufficient amount being done,” she said.  States must incorporate serious crimes into domestic legislation, while keeping a close eye on national and international scenarios to prevent intolerance from culminating in genocide.

A correspondent asked whether the United Nations was ready to change certain paragraphs of the draft outcome document for the April conference relating to human rights violations in Palestine, to which Israel objected, in order to persuade that country to attend.  Would such a change not contradict the High Commissioner’s mandate to protect human rights?  [The event is aimed at reviewing the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.]

Ms. Pillay responded by saying:  “This is why I call for the participation of all States.  Whoever your country and whatever your point of view, you have to be present and participate.”  It was to be hoped that an outcome document would be adopted by consensus, and the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations had not definitively said the country would not participate in the conference.

Asked whether the Israeli Government’s blockade of Gaza and prevention of humanitarian aid from reaching the territory’s Palestinian population was genocide, she said it was up to the courts to examine, on a case-by-case basis, whether genocide had occurred.  The Office of the High Commissioner, as well as the Secretary-General and the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), had called for an immediate end to the blockade and for shipments of food, water and other basic supplies to be allowed in.  Other causes of concern were violations of the right to free movement and the right to life, given that more than 500 Palestinians and 11 Israelis had been killed this year.

Regarding the High Commissioner’s collaboration with the International Criminal Court in investigating six cases concerning war crimes committed in Darfur, she said her Office had set up a commission of international inquiry, as called for in Security Council resolution 1564 (2004), which had found no evidence of genocidal policy, though it suggested possible evidence of individual activities of genocidal intent.  The International Criminal Court would decide whether there was evidence of genocide.

She said the High Commissioner had an office and human rights observers in the region, noting that she was extremely troubled by the situation of internally displaced persons and the use of sexual violence against women in Darfur as a weapon of war.  “The nature of war seems to have changed completely, where it’s not soldiers killing other soldiers, but civilians being targeted.”

Asked whether the creation of an interagency task force to prevent genocide, as called for earlier in the day by the Genocide Prevention Task Force, was the way forward and how it could guide United States policy on Darfur, she said that during her eight years as an judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda she had been concerned about the specific focus on prosecuting genocide.  Systematic approaches to prevent and detect early warning signs of genocide must be developed.  Having been involved in many United Nations initiatives to prevent genocide, she would be keen to look at [Genocide Prevention Task Force Co-Chair] Madeleine Albright’s book on the subject.  Discrimination, human rights violations and poverty provided fertile ground for violence, which could escalate into genocide.

Concerning the right to self-determination for people living in Kashmir, she said the detentions, extrajudicial killings, suppression of free movement and the protracted Indian-Pakistani conflict’s impact on civilians were of grave concern, and her Office would continue to focus on those violations.  People had the right to participate in a democratic process.

Regarding human rights abuses committed by United Nations peacekeepers and the Organization’s inability to ensure disciplinary action, she said the United Nations could not prosecute such cases, but it had called on the countries concerned to do so.  The Office of the High Commissioner had strongly addressed the issue, and thanks to its efforts, several peacekeepers found to have been involved in forced disappearances in Nepal had been dismissed.

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For information media • not an official record