65th Plenary Meeting - General Assembly 75th Session

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17-May-2021 02:53:11
Speakers differ over implementation of ‘responsibility to protect’ principle, as General Assembly considers draft resolution on atrocity crime prevention.

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Current Crises in Myanmar, Middle East Feature Prominently in Day-Long Debate

Delegates exchanged divergent views on applying the concept of the responsibility to protect civilians in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict and crises raging in strife-affected countries like Myanmar and Syria, as the General Assembly convened an open debate on the issue and heard the introduction of a related draft resolution.

Under its agenda item on the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the Assembly took up the Secretary-General’s latest report on the issue and an eponymous draft resolution (document A/75/L.82), which would have the world body decide to include the item in its annual agenda and request the Secretary-General to report to it every year on the issue.

Delivering opening remarks on behalf of the Secretary-General, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Chef de Cabinet, said strengthened efforts are needed now more than ever before to fulfil promises made at the 2005 World Summit on the “Responsibility to Protect” agenda, especially in light of the vulnerabilities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We must continue to work to overcome differences, forge mutual understanding and establish stronger support for the responsibility to protect as a key tool of protection and prevention,” she said. “Let us send a strong signal of our collective commitment to prioritize the protection of those at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, in accordance with the collective and solemn pledge adopted in 2005.”

Volkan Bozkir, President of the General Assembly, said that as the United Nations reflects on its past, it must learn from its failures, including the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, as there is still a clear gap between the existing obligations of Member States and the reality for at-risk populations. Reiterating the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, he said States must honour their responsibility to protect, from taking timely and effective steps to protect communities from mass atrocities to ensuring that justice is served.

During the day-long debate, the Assembly considered the Secretary-General’s latest report, “Advancing atrocity prevention: work of the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect” (document A/75/863). Providing updates on actions taken in this regard at national, regional and global levels, the report contains reflections on the role and contributions of the Office in advancing collective efforts. It also contains a package of recommendations, indicating that priority fields for action in prevention of atrocity crimes are preventing incitement to violence through engagement with religious leaders and actors and addressing and countering hate speech.

Throughout the debate, Member States expressed strong support for achievements and recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s report. Some raised grave concerns about violations, with many calling for swift action to hold perpetrators accountable. Delegates roundly supported initiatives that addressed the root causes of such disturbing trends as hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric.

Some speakers pointed to the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis as an urgent example of the uneven implementation of the responsibility to protect concept. Wondering who is protecting the Palestinian people today, Venezuela’s delegate said Israel continues to be the occupying Power, but there is a selective application of the responsibility to protect. South Africa’s representative said Israel has clear duties as the occupying Power, discouraging double standards regarding the responsibility to protect.

Other delegates called for Security Council action, including cases involving the disturbing trends of using starvation or rape as tools of war. Some called on the 15-member organ to discharge its responsibility to report such incidents to the International Criminal Court.

A number of Member States highlighted current risks, calling on the United Nations to act. The United Kingdom’s delegate said the coup in Myanmar has significantly increased the risk of atrocity crimes, especially as the military continues to conduct airstrikes in minority communities. Echoing this concern, Canada’s representative emphasized that: “We continue to struggle in moving from paralysis towards action.” Pointing to the Council’s failure to protect civilians in Syria, he voiced support for a French-Mexican initiative for voluntary restraint of the use of the veto on cases involving mass atrocities.

Several delegations outlined their position in the face of such concerns. Myanmar’s representative urged the Security Council and United Nations to take the responsibility to protect the people of his country in the face of a systematic, targeted military campaign against civilians, executing 800 people and torturing hundreds more. He said the National Unity Government has already provided relevant United Nations human rights bodies with more than 500,000 pieces of documentary evidence of crimes against humanity being committed by the military.

Syria’s delegate warned about double standards when applying the responsibility to protect principle, encouraging States to vote against the draft resolution. Calling attention to atrocities Israel is currently committing against Palestinians, he said the Organization should immediately take action to protect civilians.

Rwanda’s delegate, recalling her country’s bitter history surrounding the 1994 genocide and the home-grown building blocks shaping its foundation of peace, said the United Nations cannot stay silent when the Security Council fails to act. “We cannot debate theories and principles when civilians are being massacred,” she stressed, adding that prevention starts with breaking the deafening silence and indifference when mass atrocities are being committed.

Also speaking today were representatives of Croatia, Costa Rica (on behalf of the Friends of the Responsibility to Protect), Denmark (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Mexico (also on behalf of France), Estonia, Peru, Philippines, Switzerland, Slovakia, Qatar, Guatemala, United Arab Emirates, San Marino, Republic of Korea, Brazil, Romania, Australia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, Malaysia, Slovenia, Hungary, Honduras, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Morocco, Uruguay, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Ghana, Ireland, United States, Bulgaria, China, Iran, Malta, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as the European Union.

The General Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 18 May, to conclude the debate and take action on the draft resolution.

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