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UN marks 65th anniversary of landmark treaty on preventing, punishing genocide

A wall of photos at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
UN Photo/Mark Garten
A wall of photos at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

UN marks 65th anniversary of landmark treaty on preventing, punishing genocide

Top United Nations officials joined international experts today in New York to mark the 65th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – referred to as a living symbol of the pledge of 'never again.'

“The Genocide Convention has at its heart the commitment to protect vulnerable populations from mass violence. We have made significant advances since it was adopted but we have also seen some significant failures,” Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said, as he addressed the UN Headquarters event on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“We must be vigilant, courageous and persistent,” he stated. “We live in a troubled world, but it is within the power of all of us to make a difference. We must not be passive bystanders. We must always stand up for human rights, the rule of law and a life of dignity for all.”

Adopted on 9 December 1948 during the first session of the UN General Assembly, the Convention is largely an outcome of the world's response to the crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews and other minority groups during the Second World War.

Drafted by three giants of the human rights field – Raphael Lemkin, Vespasian Pella and Henry Donnedieu de Vabres – it defines genocide as any act committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Today, more than 140 countries have become parties to the Convention, which declares genocide a crime under international law. Those who commit, conspire to commit, or incite others to commit genocide would be found guilty of the crime.

“Genocide does not happen overnight,” Mr. Eliasson added. “There are almost always many warning signs, usually over a period of years. Very often these are violations of human rights against one particular group or entity within a population.

“That means genocide is enabled when we remain silent or are unwilling to act. But – and this is crucial – it also means we can prevent it.”

Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, noted that while the Convention makes it clear that the prime duty of the international community is to prevent, too often it has failed in this duty, with devastating consequences for innocent civilians.

“Today we have to move beyond early warning to early action. We have to strengthen the capacity of our institutions to respond in a timely and effective way to potential conflicts and to the threat of grave and massive human rights violations. Even the best system of early warning will be less helpful unless States are able and willing to take action when the warning is received.”

He said the ongoing carnage in Syria and unfolding tragedy in the Central African Republic are “stark reminders of our limitations and our inability to undertake robust, timely action to protect populations from atrocity crimes.

“Yet, any inaction is unacceptable, especially for those who endure the suffering resulting from these conflicts. We need to do more and we can do more.”

Mr. Dieng added that whenever civilians are deliberately targeted because they belong to a particular community or ethnic group, it is evident that the international community is confronting potential or indeed actual genocide.

“We can no longer afford to be blind to this grim dynamic, nor should we imagine that appeals to morality, without credible threat of action, will have much effect on people who have adopted a deliberate strategy of killing and forcible expulsion.

“Anyone who embarks on genocide commits a crime against humanity. It is therefore important that humanity must respond by taking action in its own defence. It is our collective obligation to stand firm and provide a shield to the defenseless.”

The panel discussion was organized by the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme in partnership with the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.