Address by Mary Robertson
Tuesday, December 8, 1998
It is with a deep sense of humility and respect, particularly for the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust, that I address you this evening on the opening of this important Conference on Genocide and Crimes against Humanity: Early Warning and Prevention.
Genocide is the absolute negation of the human rights of the individual as well as of the existential rights of the group of which he or she forms a part. It is the most serious denial of the dignity of an entire group—and in its starkest form—complete annihilation. The reality of such large-scale suffering almost escapes human comprehension.
Violations on the scale of the Holocaust risk being understood in a way that distances more in the abstract or as objectified historical facts, rather than at the level of the shocking individual human suffering they involve. It is all the more appropriate that we have gathered here at this location—the Holocaust Memorial Museum—to commemorate the adoption of the Genocide Convention and consider the ways in which the international community can develop means of systematic early warning and prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. By focusing on the acute pain suffered by individuals, the Museum provides us with a sense of the sheer intensity and magnitude of such crimes. As has been stressed so many times, if we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it.
Despite the immense suffering of victims of the Holocaust, and the huge human costs of World War II in general, perhaps in no other area has the international community failed so terribly to learn from the past. We have not managed to intervene effectively prevent genocide, for example, in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, or halt the commission of crimes against humanity in Cambodia. The millions that have fallen to the cruelty of their fellow human beings since the trials of Tokyo and Nuremberg make tragically clear that the evil of these calculated crimes has not been expunged from the human character, nor has it been eradicated by any effective international means.
Consequently, as we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Genocide Convention, 1948, there is no cause to celebrate. We enter a new millennium in the hope that the international community can finally hear and heed the warning signals of impending massacres and untold cruelty and take effective action to prevent a Government or faction from unleashing carnage born of hate. There remains a very long way to go in establishing strong, reliable and effective means by which to spare future generations from the monumental suffering we have witnessed in the past.
I wish to take the opportunity today not to counsel pessimism - an attitude we could ill afford in the face of the immense challenges that continue to undermine threaten or violate human dignity. Rather, I wish to consider the ways in which the international community could build constructive linkages through which early warning could be enhanced and preventive action taken with regard to particularly egregious human rights violations. Let me trace areas in which I believe the international community has made substantial progress, before considering what further measures could be taken regarding early warning and prevention.
The significance of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials extends far beyond the immediate circumstances of World War II and the Allied efforts to prevent a resumption of Axis aggression. The trials of top Axis leaders and organizers of war crimes and crimes against humanity sent a clear message that, in the future, individuals could be held responsible under international law for having committed or ordered such crimes, regardless of rank or official capacity. And superior orders were ruled out as an exculpatory defense, limiting the admissibility of such a plea only for possible mitigation of punishment.
These trials introduced “crimes against humanity” as a new legal category to cover inter alia crimes committed by a Government against its own nationals—filling a major gap in international law. However, the Nuremberg and Tokyo Charters limited the operation of the norm prohibiting crimes against humanity to the Second World War. Thus, massacres perpetrated outside situations of armed conflict and motivated on national, ethnic, racial or religious grounds were not specifically covered.
This ambiguity over genocide in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Charters required correction by the international community. Indeed, we owe a deep debt of gratitude Mr. Raphael Lemkin—a Polish Jewish lawyer who worked tirelessly to lobby Delegates to the United Nations, to consider establishing an international convention specifically outlawing genocide. Thanks to Mr. Lemkin’s efforts and the vision of governments, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted 9 December, fifty years ago tomorrow.
The Convention qualifies genocide as “a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world.” It captures the elements of genocide as a crime committed with a specific “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” It covers the related crimes of conspiracy, direct and public incitement, attempt and complicity to commit genocide and applies at all times—during armed conflict, peace and any situation in between.
Perhaps most important, the Genocide Convention exposes individuals to prosecution “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.” It also foresaw the creation of concrete international mechanisms to enforce individual criminal responsibility for major human rights violations. We can see the impact of this approach in the General Assembly’s endorsement of the Nuremberg principles in 1947 and on humanitarian law, especially the Geneva Conventions.
Although the Genocide Convention is widely recognized to form part of international customary law, I must say it is disappointing that only a hundred and twenty-seven States have become parties to it. Around one-third of the total number of States are not parties. On this fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I have called for the universal ratification by all states of the six main human rights treaties. I want to add the Genocide Convention to this list. No state can be excused for not becoming a party to the Genocide Convention. Besides being a source of treaty obligations, the Genocide Convention retains particular value as a symbol of the State’s commitment to preventing and eliminating this most heinous of crimes.
The Genocide Convention also encouraged the work of the United Nations International Law Commission on a draft international criminal code and court. However, during the long Cold War years, this work never reached fruition. Even on the domestic front, there were few trials for genocide or crimes against humanity. In fact, aside from the 1973 Apartheid Convention, little development in norms or implementation seemed possible, until, in the new post-Cold War climate, the Security Council took bold action to establish the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Each tribunal is authorized to prosecute individuals for genocide and crimes against humanity, among other categories of crimes under international law. They paved the way to the very welcome adoption, on the 17th July this year, of the Statute of the International Criminal Court at the Rome Diplomatic Conference.
The rationale behind the permanent International Criminal Court, designed to be complementary to the domestic legal systems of State-Parties, is to ensure individual perpetrators do not escape criminal justice where the State is unwilling or unable to prosecute. Although States have inherent jurisdiction to prosecute certain crimes under international law for which there is recognized universal jurisdiction, in practice, this has rarely been done, which is why the ruling of the House of Lords in the Pinochet case rejecting sovereign immunity was an important reaffirmation of international principles.
As the vast majority of delegates to the Rome Diplomatic Conference acknowledged, an International Criminal Court is the best forum to provide the necessary objectivity and independence to concentrate on the real issue of criminal responsibility and the need to counter impunity where serious violations are occurring. A universal International Criminal Court could help expose the truth about atrocities committed in a particular territory. By the fair and objective application of criminal law to individual suspects, the Court can reduce the kind of social mistrust where each side to a conflict holds the entire other side responsible, rather than only the responsible individuals on both sides. Hopefully, the Court will also be able to insure restitution or reparation as provided for in its statute. All these advantages may help eliminate the climate of impunity, and may thus help promote national reconciliation in countries rent by deep national, ethno-cultural or religious conflict.
Unlike the ad hoc international tribunals, such as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda—which basically apply retrospectively to crimes already committed—an effective standing International Criminal Court will send out a powerful message of deterrence to all in positions of power and leadership that they can no longer use terror tactics, systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, mutilation and indiscriminate killing of non-combatants as weapons of war or for any other purpose. This principle is rooted in the ancient laws and customs of almost all cultures and throughout history.
The agreement reached in Rome shows one area in which the international community is moving in the right direction. However, international criminal law enforcement will not be enough. The international community must act to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity on a much broader front.
I see here a crucial role in the advancement of human rights. I would say that literally everything being done in this area contributes to the eradication of genocide because all human rights are interlinked. By contributing to a universal human rights culture, we seek to address the root causes of conflicts and open avenues of communication between and among all groups and individuals.
In effect, a well-resourced UN human rights program could constitute a critical early warning system. As it is the reports, recommendations and findings of the various mechanisms and a number of bodies established to monitor State Party compliance with specific human rights treaties, form the core of human rights early warning. And my office has supplemented these procedures in some cases with the deployment of human rights field officers to a number of areas facing specific difficulties, such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Angola, Colombia, the Former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Abkhazia/Georgia, to name a few countries. These field presences are designed to assist the Government in fostering human rights and the rule of law, frequently in the difficult transition time between war and peace.
The human rights mechanisms constitute only a part of the overall early-warning system within the United Nations. Moreover, with the rise of global telecommunications and the immediate availability of media reports, we have little justification to claim we did not know that the human rights situation was worsening in countries where they are plain to see.
Let me refer this evening to only one example - that of Rwanda. In his August of 1993 public report, the then Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions - Mr. Bacre Ndiaye, now head of our New York office—signaled that the situation in Rwanda had deteriorated sufficiently as to possibly lead to an outbreak of genocide. This report, released months before the fateful 6 April, 1994 air crash and the onset of genocide in Rwanda, was not accorded due importance.
We have some early warning mechanisms, but what we need now is to strengthen them and be determined to take effective and timely action! None of the avenues provided for by the UN human rights programme can be of preventive value unless Governments themselves realize human rights are both a signal and a cause that further escalation in the conflict is likely to be on the way and show a greater willingness to act preventatively. We have seen in so many cases that Governments fail to act beyond what they perceive to be their own self-interest often viewed very myopically.
As Secretary General M. Kofi Annan pointed out in his 17 March speech to the 1998 session of the Commission on Human Rights:
“We have almost unlimited information sources to tell us about events around the world. We have reports submitted to the Commission, to the General Assembly, to the High Commissioner. They should be seen as diagnostic tools and early warning signals. They must not be disregarded. … The international community must summon the will to use this information to act in time.”
In the same statement, the Secretary General called for declaring the next century “the age of prevention of human rights violations. Last July he hosted a conference at the United Nations with heads of international regional organizations to examine issues of early warning and conflict prevention, and discussions are continuing at technical level.
The need to move from reaction to timely prevention raises the responsibilities of my own Office. As High Commissioner, I shall continue to make all efforts to strengthen the existing UN human rights machinery and support national efforts at human rights promotion around the world and at all levels. But we in the United Nations will not be able to be more effective in our work unless Governments accord greater recognition to the real importance of human rights and offer us greater support.
Ultimately, it people and the political force they can create to spur their Government to respect human rights at home and to pressure other Governments to do the same, that matter. My office therefore places great importance on human rights education and mass human rights awareness campaigns, which, if carried out effectively, can help foster a universal human rights culture that enhances sensitivity on the part of all peoples and all individuals around the world.
In the longer term, human rights standards will not be realized in a universal or sustained manner unless implemented effectively at the national level through interaction of individual human rights defenders, non-governmental organizations and wider civil society and Governments. The international community must act together to strengthen early warning and conflict prevention, by heeding the signals and taking sustained multilateral action at an early stage.
It is no coincidence that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. Fifty years ago, the international community realized that human rights have to be fully respected, protected, promoted and implemented to ensure genocide shall “Never again” be allowed to happen. The last fifty years have shown that this realization by itself is not enough to prevent genocide. What we need now is the firm political support of all Governments to heed early warning signals and take concrete preventive action to ensure that “Never Again” is translated from words to reality.
That remarkable humanitarian and survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi posed the question “have we—we who have returned been able to understand and make others understand our experience?” It is a responsibility we must discharge.