UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

All atrocity crimes are preventable and can never be justified, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said.

Guterres said atrocity crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing – were not “inevitable” and urged that the international community must do more to end violence against innocent people.

Speaking at a General Assembly debate on the ‘responsibility to protect’ Guterres highlighted that upholding the obligation, when most needed was critical.

“At this time of extreme challenges, we must not abandon the responsibility to protect or leave it in a state of suspended animation, finely articulated in words but breached time and again in practice.

“Lofty principles mean little if they cannot be applied when they matter most,” the UN chief said.

The responsibility to protect, widely known as R2P, refers to the obligation of states toward their populations and toward all populations at risk of genocide and other mass war crimes.

After years of discussion in the wake of the atrocities committed in Bosnia and Rwanda during the1990s, UN member states committed to the principle by including R2P in the outcome document of the 2005 high-level UN World Summit in New York.

Guterres reminded member states of their duty to protect their own people and proposed steps they could take to strengthen their capacities.

Such steps include conducting national risk assessments and designing policies to address any vulnerabilities, he said.

In addition, increasing the participation of civil society would help enhance early warning and ensure the effectiveness of national human rights institutions and ombudsperson, he added.

“Our over-arching challenge is to uphold the principle while preventing its misuse. That means acting promptly, preventively, diplomatically, before situations escalate and spiral out of control,” Guterres stressed.

The secretary-general also urged all member states to “ratify and domesticate” instruments of international law relating to the prohibition and prevention of atrocity crimes.

Of the 193 UN member states, 45 have yet to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted in 1948 and entered into force in early 1951.

The Convention defines genocide in legal terms and underlines the need to hold those responsible for the reprehensible act to justice.

Also addressing the meeting, General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák recalled that since the 2005 World Summit and the adoption by the Assembly of a resolution on the issue in 2009, the body was having its first formal meeting on the principle.

“So, I think it is a good time to remind ourselves of the weight on our shoulders,” Lajčák said.

“It means to do everything we can to avoid reaching the point where humanity is lost,” he said, noting that while prevention may be “hard work, but it is worth it”.

“We have all committed, through the Charter’s first line, to save future generations from the scourge of war. And the responsibility to protect is based on this very objective,” he said.

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