The Holy See
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New York
Thursday, 6 April 2006


All of us who work at the UN, in what has become the home of human rights thanks to the UDHR, often find ourselves debating how to confront the question of the most shameful, intolerable and gross violation of the most fundamental of all human rights:  the right to life, as manifested in the phenomenon of genocide. But, when we come to the testimony of witnesses to such a tragedy, the tone of the meeting becomes especially compelling. I would like therefore to thank our panelists for what they have just shared with us.

No longer than a week ago, in this very room, we celebrated a similar event to sustain the memory and lessons of two atrocious genocides of the past century. On that occasion, someone remarked:  it seems that our "Never Agains" are becoming "Ever Agains". Although it may have been apt, I felt that this was an extremely sad comment, even a little cynical.

But we must admit, sometimes it is hard not to agree with such a statement. If denial is the Sisyphus' stone, that rolls dramatic events down the hill again and again, then our indifference is probably the worst element of all, going as it does hand in hand with a lack of political will.

Partly in response to this, the words "Thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander", were rightly proclaimed at the first Conference of the Stockholm Forum. The Stockholm Forum was instrumental in triggering a new mechanism within the UN system, charged with collecting information on massive violations of human rights; informing the Security Council of early warnings of genocide; making recommendations; and enhancing the cooperation between the Security Council and the Secretary-General on issues related to genocide. A Special Adviser to the Secretary-General was appointed and continues to work on the coordination of these four tasks.

The long debate on UN reform leading up to the World Summit last September elaborated, and subsequently inserted into World Summit Outcome document itself, the ethical and juridical parameters that the modern conscience and sensitivities have developed on this particular issue. It highlighted the responsibility to protect as essential to the raison d'être of any state. This is the idea that a state's sovereignty is to be treated as a responsibility and not solely as a right, and that a state interprets and exercises its sovereignty properly when it is ready and willing to meet its responsibility to its citizens and to the international community. It was always traditionally supposed that every state had the primary responsibility to protect its own population from man-made crimes or disasters, such as genocide, forced starvation or human rights violations. More recently, this concept has been amplified through a growing consensus that, when a given country cannot or does not want to intervene to protect its population, the international community represented by the UN has not only the right but the duty to intervene. Currently, these means of intervention are in the hands of the Security Council; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are in the hands of the political will of states.

Political will also relies on civil society - on you and me.

Tragically, genocide is still a menace in certain regions of the world, where its causes and telltale signs are not always easy to identify. It is latent in places where eliminating the opposition is considered a "quick fix" to drawn-out rivalries and unresolved conflicts; where blatantly unjust relations between groups are maintained or justified by ideologies; where under the surface of apparent order embers of hatred still burn for lack of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation; where acceptance of past mistakes and a "purification of memory" are obstructed by the fear of confronting historical reality. Nor are these just warnings of an impending threat of genocide:  I would venture to suggest that they are also identifiable factors in breeding grounds of terrorism.

Let us hope that, through an increased awareness of events near and far from home, the whole of civil society can foment the necessary political will which will bring together the forces of good will. Thus the reality behind the words "Never Again" may finally see the light of day, sooner rather than later.