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Mass atrocity prevention must be at the heart of the Security Council

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At a UNGA side-event on preventing and ending mass atrocities, Mary Robinson welcomed and urged the implementation of the two Code of Conduct initiatives spearheaded by the ACT group and the French/Mexican governments to end such crimes.


Mary Robinson reflecting on today's global challenges (Credits: International Peace Institute)

I am proud to represent the voice of The Elders at this very important event because when Mandela established us 10 years ago he said we should be independent, speak truth to power and work for peace and human rights. So it is really a pleasure to join with the governments of Liechtenstein, France and Mexico and my friend Salil Shetty this important discussion.

The Security Council was set up to be the leader on peace and security, and it must therefore bear the heaviest weight of responsibility in preventing conflict and mass atrocities. When the Security Council fails to act, it undermines the world’s faith in the United Nations and gives confidence to autocrats that they can commit terrible atrocities and escape accountability. It is simply not acceptable for the highest organ of the United Nations, responsible for peace and security, to block credible steps that could save so many lives.

"When the Security Council fails to act, it gives confidence to autocrats that they can commit terrible atrocities and escape accountability."

As you know, There is widespread awareness of the Council’s appalling failures to end conflict in Syria, but these failures extend widely around the world; the Security Council’s inability to agree an arms embargo in South Sudan is a case in point. Even as we speak, the consequences are tragically seen in the horrific situation unfolding in Myanmar.

In fact, I call on on behalf of The Elders, I call on the Security Council to work constructively with the Government of Myanmar and its armed forces (the Tatmadaw) to end the ongoing violence in Rakhine State immediately. At the same time, I must call on the Rohingya armed group which claimed responsibility for attacks on police stations in northern Rakhine State last month to desist forthwith from all acts of violence. To help build the foundations of a lasting and inclusive peace, The Elders recommend that the Myanmar government take steps to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by Kofi Annan, my fellow Elder.

"The stakes are too high for us to accept P5 obstructionism as the way that the world works."

Ladies and gentlemen, over the past two and a half years, The Elders have given consistent support to initiatives designed to encourage the Security Council to take its responsibilities to prevent armed conflict more seriously – especially when there is a risk of mass atrocities. We strongly support the two Code of Conduct initiatives spearheaded respectively by the ACT group and the French and Mexican governments. It is heartening to see that nearly two-thirds of the UN membership have signed up to these initiatives.

Effective implementation ultimately depends on persuading the permanent members of the Security Council to live up to their responsibilities. This is why The Elders have advocated that efforts to prevent mass atrocity crimes must focus above all on encouraging a more collaborative and constructive relationship amongst the P5 countries. At a minimum, no P5 country should cast a veto without publicly explaining their decision and proposing a credible alternative; and the remaining Council members must not give up when a veto is cast, but must redouble their efforts to find a workable solution.

I do not hold my breath that the P5 will come to such an understanding in the near future. But as dispiriting as these efforts can often feel, we owe it to those whose lives are at risk not to give in to despair. The stakes are too high for us to collectively shrug our shoulders and accept P5 obstructionism as the way that the world works. This is why the ACT and French/Mexican initiatives are so important, in demonstrating clearly that the wider UN membership expects better of the Security Council.

"When the Security Council does find common ground, it can be a very positive force."

I strongly encourage current and prospective Council members to place mass atrocity prevention at the heart of their efforts. I understand that this will continue to be a fraught, divisive and intensely political issue. However, even in this context, there may be areas on which a wider consensus can be obtained, for instance on improving the Council’s working methods on prevention of conflict – an issue which the New Zealand government emphasised during its recent term on the Council. It would be helpful to have a strong champion of this on the Security Council, and I would particularly encourage candidate countries such as Germany to prioritise prevention efforts in their platforms.

I personally know from experience that when the Security Council does find common ground, it can be a very positive force. During my time in 2013-2014 as Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, it was helpful that the Security Council was generally able to find consensus on situations such as in the DRC, and this played an important role in promoting stability. I urge all members of the Security Council to bear this in mind in future deliberations: when the Security Council fails, the United Nations fails; but when it works together, its voice is a powerful one, and can promote a more peaceful and stable world.

Because it is a Friday afternoon and because it can be a depressing subject, I thought I might end on a lighter note and pass onto you a little wisdom from the former chair of the Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I sat on a panel with Desmond Tutu here in New York about six or seven years ago at the Social Good Summit. We were being moderated by an American journalist who turned to Archbishop Tutu rather sharply and said “Archbishop Tutu, why are you such an optimist?” and he looked at her and said “Oh no dear, I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.” I think that it is profoundly significant and wise. We all have to be prisoners of hope, because we have to see what is in the situation that we can work on, even if it seems very grim. We are living in very frightening and unstable times, even with what has been said from the floor of the United Nations, as we know. We have to see the hope and possibilities and work on those. I encourage all of you to do so. I thank Liechtenstein, France and Mexico for their leadership on this.

Watch Mary Robinson from min. 21:00

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