Same standards of international law should be enforced

11 Nov 2009

Same standards of international law should be enforced

NEW YORK - UN human rights chief tells UN Security Council in debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict.

“More political will and less political exceptionalism” is required for the Security Council to be more effective in its critically important work of protecting civilians in situations of armed conflict, according to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

Addressing the Security Council today on behalf of the High Commissioner, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang, emphasized that “all must be held to a single standard”, including the explicit application of international law and its enforcement.

For 10 years now, the Security Council has been discussing this issue, she remarked, and while this has significantly advanced understanding of the crucial importance of protection of civilians and human rights to the cause of international peace and security, “a higher level of political will must be mobilized to take timely and effective action to prevent atrocities, protect the vulnerable, hold perpetrators to account, and ensure redress for victims.”

When we say ‘protection’, the High Commissioner said in her statement, we are talking about protection of the human rights of individuals as contained in international law. The authority of this law “cannot be replaced by more amorphous notions of protection, or by less obligatory notions of charitable action.”

The establishment of tribunals, such as for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as the referral of specific cases to the International Criminal Court, “have helped to send an important signal that even in the ‘fog of war’ impunity is not assured,” she said. “The dispatch of credible, independent, law-based, accountability-focused, and publicly-reporting commissions of inquiry has proven to be an important catalyst in the Council’s efforts to combat impunity, and more use could be made of such mechanisms.”

Pointing to the example of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Gaza, headed by distinguished international jurist Richard Goldstone, the High Commissioner described how this report documents the “corrosive effect of impunity on both human rights and peace”. It lays out in detail the nature and scope of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law perpetrated on civilians. “Until meaningful steps are taken to end impunity for these violations and assert the applicability of international law, peace and security will remain elusive for all the people of the region,” she stated.

Another example the High Commissioner pointed to is the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which she described as “a horrifying reminder of the depths to which inhumanity can spiral if left unchecked.” Hundreds of civilians have been killed there this year alone, and sexual violence including rape, has increased drastically. “Well-known human rights violators, including an ICC indictee, continue to occupy high level command positions within the Congolese army,” she said. “Recent public statements by senior Government officials demonstrate a lack of political will to investigate high ranking officials and raises doubt regarding the zero tolerance policy against sexual violence proclaimed by the President.”

In Darfur, years of effort to bring effective protection to the long-suffering civilians has been unsuccessful, she pointed out. This despite the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur which concluded that Government forces and militias were responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and which led to the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court. “But justice remains elusive, and violations continue,” she said.

And in Afghanistan, where the continuing conflict has repeatedly caught civilians in the cross-fire, there is an urgent need to improve accountability, including through criminal prosecution as well as redress for victims, she said. “The failure to pursue a credible transitional justice strategy including holding to account those responsible for the gravest of crimes over more than three decades of war and the climate of impunity created thereby is a significant factor in the challenging political context and growing insecurity that now envelope Afghanistan.”

“Law, without enforcement,” she said, “is of little moment to would-be perpetrators. To be effective in the protection of civilians, the Council must consistently work to ensure accountability for perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights.”

This was the first time since 2005 that the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been invited to address the Security Council in an open meeting. The High Commissioner welcomed this opportunity and offered her assistance to ensure that in future the Security Council received relevant human rights information related to the protection of civilians in countries on its agenda.