The UN Genocide Convention at Seventy: The Politics of Mass Atrocity Prevention

State Secretary Marianne Hagen's opening address at the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities

Good morning,
Professor Guri Hjeltnes,
Distinguished guests and academics from abroad,
Researchers at the Center for Holocaust and Religious Minorities,

State Secretary Marianne Hagen (middle), Guri Hjeltnes and professor William Schabas.
State Secretary Marianne Hagen (middle), Guri Hjeltnes and professor William Schabas. Credit: Guri Solberg, MFA

In 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

This autumn, we mark the 70th anniversary of the Convention and the obligations that signatory states have undertaken to prevent atrocities and punish perpetrators. The Convention was truly a great leap forward.

Friends,

States have a responsibility to fulfil their human rights obligations and to prevent mass atrocities.

At the same time, the principle of sovereign equality of all Member States is also a cornerstone of the UN Charter.

As a result, the international community has often been a powerless spectator to atrocities, ethnic cleansing and genocide within the borders of an individual state.

The term ‘genocide’ did not even exist before 1944. The concept was clearly developed in response to the Nazi policy of systematically destroying ethnic groups, including the mass murder of European Jews and Roma. However, the preamble to the UN Genocide Convention states that ‘[…] at all periods of history, genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity’. This reflects the fact that crimes of this kind have taken place throughout history, although the classification as genocide may be disputed in some cases.

Distinguished academics,

I have not come here today to discuss the various definitions of ’genocide’, which you are far better qualified to do. Rather, I would like to underline the commitment of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to drawing attention to –- and supporting – groups of people who experience mass atrocities. 

Friends,

Some experts may consider the legal definition of ‘genocide’ in the Genocide Convention to be inadequate for the purposes of monitoring, early warning and prevention. However, we should not let this discussion undermine our efforts to promote early prevention within the agreed legal framework.

It is clear that we need to address situations before they escalate and – equally important – increase the resources available for doing so.

In 1994, as the international community watched, more than 800 000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutu militia and government forces over a period of 100 days. Today, the effects of the genocide in Rwanda are still felt in various ways throughout the region.

Genocide does not suddenly occur. Genocide requires organisation and strategy. We need to understand how genocide develops, and to recognise the signals leading up to it, in order to ensure that such horrors do not happen again.

Strengthening the human rights pillar of the UN is a crucial investment in human rights, development, and peace and security.

You will find Norway in the core group of countries supporting the resolution on the Human Rights Council’s role in preventing human rights abuses. At the summer session of the Council this year, the discussion on the prevention mandate proved to be challenging. Despite the fact that a number of key states – including Russia and China – were actively opposing the resolution, it was successfully adopted. We won broad, cross-regional support and 50 co-sponsors.

Why is this important?

The purpose of the UN resolution is to facilitate broad discussions and to explore how the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms can prevent human rights abuses and atrocities in the future. We hope that the world community eventually will be able to establish a structured, inclusive and transparent dialogue to address how the Council can become better and more efficient in delivering on its prevention mandate. Such a dialogue must be in line with its working principles of objectivity, impartiality and accountability. The process must include states, civil society, national human rights institutions as well as other stakeholders.

Friends,

In this context, incitement to genocide is a key issue.

In the month leading up to the killing of hundred of thousands of Tutsis, the Huti-owned tabloid Kangura campaigned against Tutsis and dehumanised the entire minority. In 1997, Hassan Ngeze, the editor of Kangura, and two of its journalists were found guilty on several counts of genocide-related crimes by the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In the verdict, the judges declared: ‘Without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon, you caused the death of thousands of innocent civilians’.

Friends,

This raises a number of pertinent issues linked to the role of the media. Most editor-controlled media are subject to ethical rules, and many have learned a lesson from Rwanda. Social media, however, are different, and give us all the opportunity to express ourselves and participate in the public debate. Sadly, this can be abused to spread hate and even to incite violence.

Some 25 years later, the world is still facing huge challenges. Since August 2017, more than 700 000 of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have fled Rakhine State to escape massive violence. A recent report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar calls for Myanmar’s top military generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The findings in the report are grave and Norway will examine the full report when it is made public at the next session of the Human Rights Council on the 18th of September.

Friends,

Genocide and other serious international crimes are offences against the international community as a whole. This is why we need robust national and international institutions that can hold perpetrators of such crimes to account. This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court – the ICC. The ICC’s mandate includes genocide, and Norway is a strong supporter of the ICC and its work. We believe that international institutions and cooperation to uphold and strengthen international law and to fight impunity are crucial.

This is an important seminar. I hope very much that your discussions over these two days will be fruitful and inspiring.

Thank you.

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