Event in Geneva to Reflect upon over 70 Years of the Genocide Convention
11 Apr 2019   |   Geneva

This report summarizes key takeaways from the discussion of the afternoon:

Event Report

Building upon the example of Argentina, and on the progresses made in the sphere of international justice during the past 30 years, Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi underlined the essential role of accountability to ensure the criminal responsibilities of the perpetrators, and to disclose and reveal the truth to the society. In her view, it is essential that truth continues as an autonomous goal beyond justice when dealing with past mass atrocities, given that the judicial truth may not coincide with the plain truth as perceived by the victims and by the society. She highlighted lessons learned that she considers essential while working on international and transitional justice:

  • The importance of disclosing the truth, reaching out to the society as a whole, and of giving victims a central role in order for investigations to have an impact in national societies.
  • The need to gather and preserve evidence as soon as possible, in accordance with modern methodologies, with the view to make justice possible at any time and in the future.
  • The need to enhance cooperation between domestic and international justice, as well as interstate judicial cooperation to investigate and prosecute.
  • Similarly, efforts to enhance complementarity between international tribunals and national jurisdiction are essential as no single institution can fight impunity for mass atrocity crimes alone.

The presentation of Iniyan Ilango focused on the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) dimension in relation to addressing root causes and preventing mass atrocity crimes. While ESCR and civil and political rights are interrelated and must be seen together, ESCR have received less attention when referring to mass atrocity crimes.

  • Observations from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Philippines show that factors such as restrictive demographic and language policies, restrictive access to land and to natural resources, and poverty and economic inequality have contributed to the commission of atrocities. The topic of business and human rights is an important question. With increased presence in conflict areas, and a growing role in the new geo-political context in the world, many mass atrocity crimes and conflicts have been happening at the crossroads where different business interests meet.
  • If ESCR have traditionally been part of root causes, their fulfillment could also play a significant role as a means for prevention. Several existing mechanisms from the international community can be useful to this aim, namely the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review, technical assistance by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Sustainable Development Goals' process, and the guiding principles on business and human rights. In his opinion, more work could be done in developing a body of guidance and accountability processes for development assistance, and the involvement of international financial institutions in post-conflict societies. Likewise, a process of standardization and accountability encompassing important aspects related to prevention could be developed for business enterprises.
  • This discussion is timely as it can feed into the ongoing discussions on implementing the Human Rights Council prevention mandate more effectively.# More broadly, it comes at a time when the effectiveness of the UN to react and to prevent situations of crisis despite being present on the ground is being questioned. The examples of Sri Lanka, and more recently Myanmar have shown that many UN's staff lacked a human rights perspective, and therefore were not able to act in a preventive manner.
  • There is a window of opportunity to explore a new human rights architecture for the UN, and on how it could better perform in terms of helping prevention on the ground.

Drawing on knowledge of the Holocaust, Wichert ten Have put forward strategies to address the topic of past violations, and how this can help interpret what happened in the past and what is happening nowadays:

  • Policies of discrimination generally resulted from a step by step process of practices and measures taken by governments or administrations. This gradual development made it difficult for those who lived through it to have an overall picture. Hence the importance to understand what is happening in real time.
  • In general, there is a driving force in the process of genocides; projects and strategies are designed with the intention to destroy a group. The ideology implies the consciousness of an identity, itself based on a specific interpretation of the past. Genocide and mass atrocity targeted a minority group as victims. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what is happening with minority groups and identity issues in our society.
  • There is a danger in generalization: the way persecutions take place depends on the specific context which makes mass atrocities plausible. The history of the different regions in the time of the Holocaust proves that political, cultural and mostly economic interests shape this context.
  • Looking together for a common narrative is very important after grave conflict. It is proven that if the discussion does not take place, the possibilities of new conflicts remains. This work needs to be done, and the process in itself can be helpful even if the end is not reached. There is no such thing as one truth, but shared narratives can be elaborated.

Felistas Mushi shared significant and concrete inputs from Tanzania's experience. Tanzania was the first country to develop an initial national mechanism of prevention in 2012, as intended in the Great Lakes Protocol on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. While the Protocol has rules and procedures for the actors that should be on board at national level, it does not provide any clear process on how to initiate the mechanism.

  • Talking about genocide prevention in a country at peace was one of the challenges the National Committee had to face, as people did not understand why they would be talking about such an issue. To overcome this problem, they unpacked the notion of genocide prevention and aligned the narrative with peacebuilding.
  • The National Committee started Peace Forums with religious leaders in different regions of the country to talk about their roles in peacebuilding. The first step of bringing together leaders from different denominations and faith was not easy. But once these leaders realized that they have a role to play in peacebuilding, they started to come up with recommendations on how to engage communities. They ended up establishing peace committees at their own initiative.
  • The National Committee realized that it was crucial to involve people at the community level, and to encourage them to come up with local solutions within their means to ensure sustainability of the interventions.
  • At the national level, the Committee identified key members of society, such as traditional leaders and religious leaders, who will then take up the process locally. The Committee organizes follow-up forums to make sure that they keep the momentum going and hence do not loose what has been established.

Ms. Mushi's contribution illustrates how early understanding and early capacity to generate dialogue on the ground through the development of local solutions contributed to the implementation of a culture of prevention. It also demonstrates the capacity to go from local to national level and vice versa.

During the round of discussion with the public, several issues were evoked, such as the intensity of efforts made on structural prevention versus crisis management and late or post atrocity actions through Geneva mechanisms. According to Mr. ten Have, all are needed. However, when short term reactions are necessary, these should be thought through considering structural prevention measures.

Mr. Ilango underlined the innovative processes that came out from the Human Rights Council, such as the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, as well as the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. He added that having an international body credibly collecting evidence is a very important deterrence factor that acts as a preventive tool. "The ability of the Human Rights Council to come out with these processes is something states should keep in mind in terms of addressing both prevention as well as future situations", thereby highlighting the potential of Geneva-based human rights bodies in terms of prevention.

The audience also raised the issue of how to foster political will. In Ms. Fernández de Gurmendi’s view, strengthening the rule of law through the adoption of new rules, treaties and mechanisms or the consolidation of existing ones is key. Instead of approaching the issue through the political will angle, she recommends reinforcing the rules that bind us together and cannot be easily destroyed. For her, the discussion on the creation and establishment of national mechanisms is extremely important. And "if justice is imperfect the only solution is to try to improve it". Lastly, Ms. Mushi explained that based on the experience in her country, you have to show what you are doing, and further that what you are doing is relevant and workable in order to foster political will; "what we have learned in Tanzania is that you have to cultivate political will".