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International Law

Making Effective Use of Existing Legal Obligations in the Face of Atrocity Crimes

By April 17, 2019April 19th, 2019No Comments

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Genocide Convention, the international community has not done well in ensuring that “never again” means “never again.”

While there is a general agreement that the international community bears a responsibility to protect (“R2P”) against atrocity crimes, in situations such as Syria there has been no responsibility shown and no protection. And there has been extensive use of the veto by some permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Prevent and Punish

Too often people speak of R2P as if it is optional, a nice moral aspiration, but nothing more. In fact, there are hard law legal obligations underlying R2P. Under the Genocide Convention, Article 1 imposes an obligation to “prevent and punish” genocide. Countries with particular ties or particular positions of influence, or ones intervening in a situation, would have particularly strong obligations of due diligence.

There is also the obligation to “punish” genocide in Article 1 of the Convention. The International Court of Justice has additionally recognized the obligation of third states to ensure respect for the Geneva Convention.

In terms of veto power, its use has been mixed. Over the past 20 years, there have been a number of initiatives calling for voluntary veto restraint in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity, and/or war crimes. But they are all framed as “soft law” legal obligation, and three permanent members of the Security Council have not joined any of them.

What is the Future?

To move forward on R2P, we need to remind ourselves that there are legal obligations underlying it. These remarks are not solely addressed to states on the UN Security Council, but also member states of the General Assembly and individual states in their bilateral relations.

Why did R2P play virtually no role related to the situation in Syria? It was blocked by veto use in the face of atrocity crimes. I suggest a critical look at whether unlimited veto use in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes accords with the UN Charter and international law.

One could even imagine the General Assembly requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on this issue: “Is unrestrained veto use in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in accordance with international law?”

Published at NYU Global Citizen:

Published at World Federalist Movement Canada:

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Jennifer Trahan

Author Jennifer Trahan

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