Opening address of Ms. Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the High-level side event convened by Permanent Missions of Australia, Hungary, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uruguay

“The reporsibility of States and the International Community to build States' Capacity to protect their onw populations” 

17 September 2013
Room XXIV, Palais des Nations


Dear colleagues,

I thank the Permanent Missions of Australia, Hungary, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uruguay for inviting me to this important side-event.

Let me also start by welcoming Jennifer Welsh, the new Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the responsibility to protect.  I extend our full cooperation to her in the implementation of this critical mandate.

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) refers to the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as recognized in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.

It should be underscored that the obligations to prevent and punish genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are firmly anchored in conventional and customary international law. The R2P concept also refers to ethnic cleansing. While this is not a separate crime under international law, acts of ethnic cleansing may qualify under the other three crimes.

In his first report to the General Assembly in 2009, the Secretary-General proposed a three-pillar strategy for realizing the promise of the responsibility to protect. The three pillars are:

  • Pillar One  on  the protection responsibilities of the State;
  • Pillar Two on international assistance and capacity-building;
  • Pillar Three on timely and decisive response. 

The organizers of this event have requested that I focus my remarks today on the first two pillars. I will do so from a human rights perspective.

First Pillar:  The protection responsibilities of States

The responsibility to protect, first and foremost, is a concern of State responsibility, because prevention begins at home.  The protection of populations is a defining attribute of sovereignty and statehood in the twenty-first century.

It is important to note the serious crimes targeted for prevention under the R2P doctrine- that is genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes- are also gross human rights violations. Simple logic tells us then that stopping human rights violations constitutes a first step in preventing a situation from escalating into the more severe international crimes that are the raison d’être of R2P.

International human rights treaties, which a large number of States have ratified, offer a solid framework for action, including for prevention, a requirement for R2P.

The UN Secretary-General has recalled in his most recent report on the R2P (A/67/929 of 9 July 2013), and I quote, ‘early preventive action can address structural and operational factors that affect State capacity to prevent atrocity crimes’.

In this regard, States should commit to strengthening their preventive capacity by pursuing the following human rights measures:

  • Ratifying relevant treaties  on international  human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law, as well as  the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court;
  • Implementing their obligations under the above-mentioned instruments, in particular through the enhancement of the national protection system; including through the adoption of the relevant national legal framework and policies;
  • Addressing root-causes which may lead to the commission of RtoP crimes, including eliminating marginalization, exclusion, and discrimination;
  • Ensuring that the judiciary, law enforcement officers, defence and security forces, prosecutors and parliamentarians are adequately trained in human rights;
  • Supporting and providing protection to individual victims and survivors of crimes;
  • Combating impunity including through the adoption of relevant legislation and the establishment of vetting and accountability mechanisms, including transitional justice mechanisms;
  • enhancing the capacity of national jurisdictions to investigate and prosecute the alleged perpetrators of serious crimes under international law;
  • Cooperating with treaty bodies, special procedures and the Universal Periodic Review mechanism and effectively implementing their recommendations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to further elaborate on the importance of combating impunity as part of States’ responsibility to protect.

The on-going prevalence of impunity in many countries which have experienced violent conflict or unrest undermines the fabric of societies and is detrimental to any lasting solution to instability. Combating impunity is critical to prevent further violations from taking place. It is also a vital step in the restoration or preservation of the rule of law, and peace and security.  States must adopt necessary measures for combating impunity in compliance with international human rights standards.

It is clear that justice should be achieved through national processes first. This last August, the General Assembly adopted resolution 67/295 on  by consensus, which emphasised, and I quote, that “States need to adopt appropriate measures within their national legal systems for those crimes for which they are required under international law to exercise their responsibility to investigate and prosecute”.

However, we must acknowledge the challenges that are frequently faced by States and other stakeholders, including victims, while pursuing justice at the domestic level. Our experiences show that justice initiatives in post-conflict situations generally take place in a highly politicized and often polarized environment. As far as possible, the pursuit of justice should be depoliticised and accountability addressed in a manner that respects human rights norms. A further challenge is related to the lack of necessary capacity and technical ability to investigate and prosecute crimes, and to address their complexity; and adopt specialized approaches where needed. This challenge may be further exacerbated in the absence of a strong commitment to due process, including fair trial guarantees.

When States are unable or unwilling to ensure justice at national level, international justice must be activated.  The obligation to punish perpetrators of international crimes is reflected in the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. To date, there are 122 States parties to the Rome Statute. I encourage those States who have not ratified the Statute to do so and commit to ending impunity for serious violations.

Ratification of the ICC Statute is entirely in keeping with the commitment to combat impunity made by world leaders just a year ago, in September 2012 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rule of Law. Through this Declaration, while committing to ensuring that impunity is not tolerated for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity or for violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of human rights law, and that such violations are properly investigated and appropriately sanctioned, all States also recognised “the role of the International Criminal Court in a multilateral system that aims to end impunity and establish the rule of law” (Paragraph 22-23, A/RES/67/1).

With regard to the ratification of international treaties by States, I would also like to highlight the importance of the international Arms Trade Treaty, which is recently adopted by the Geneva Assembly.  This new treaty could play an important role in preventing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, if States act to provisionally apply the prohibition on transfers of arms which would be used to commit these crimes. I strongly encourage States to ratify it as soon as possible.  (I also take this opportunity to congratulate Ambassador Peter Woolcott of Australia for successfully leading the negotiations at the Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.)

Second Pillar: International assistance and capacity-building for protection

Dear colleagues,

Moving now to the second Pillar – i.e. international assistance and capacity-building for protection, I would like to highlight the various forms of international assistance.  These include, but are not limited to, encouraging States to meet their individual responsibility to protect and assisting them in building their capacity to protect their populations from violations.

Encouraging States to meet these obligations can be done through dialogue, education and training on human rights and other international legal standards and norms.

Within the UN human rights system, human rights treaty bodies, the special procedures mechanism and the universal periodic review (UPR) process of the Human Rights Council, and OHCHR, are well placed to bolster the capacity of States to fulfill their responsibility to protect. 

Let me offer an example of how we have done so. Advocacy carried out by both my office and by various human rights mechanisms has led to the establishment of truth commissions and other transitional justice and accountability mechanisms for societies emerging from conflict around the world. In recent years we have developed strategies for transitional justice and carried out training and related activities in numerous locations.

In our view, overcoming divisions and developing trust within societies recovering from conflict, communal strife or repressive rule is central to any mandate of protection and promotion of human rights.  We are aware that dealing with past atrocities must be approached within the context of the circumstances of each country.  We work in close consultation with communities involved to identify their best interests.

This approach has helped States not only to address past human rights violations, but also to elaborate national agendas for institutional reform. With field presences in almost 60 countries, OHCHR has become a global resource for assisting countries in fulfilling their human rights obligations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that our Office remains ready to assist States, through engagement and assistance, to develop appropriate tools; in particular those which relate to strengthening national capacity in human rights protection so as to prevent future crimes.  I hope that today’s side-event will take this discussion forward. 

Thank you.