UNacceptable: The UN needs to get real about saving the oppressed
Lest we risk a strategic and moral failure, accountability must be at the centre of efforts to resolve conflicts
The United Nations General Assembly is viewed each year through the prism of speeches by world leaders at the marble podium. But the UN exists for the millions of people worldwide who will never set foot in its corridors: the “men and women of nations large and small” whose equal rights to justice and security are enshrined in the UN Charter.
In principle, the UN belongs as much to the poorest refugee as it does to any president or prime minister. In practice, the interests and priorities of powerful member states determine which violations of human rights are addressed and which continue unchecked.
World leaders, gathered in New York this week, should recommit to the principle that there can be no long-term peace and security without accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is a matter of self-interest as much as idealism.
The erosion of the rule of law in any part of the world eats away at the foundations of our long-term security. Peace settlements that give amnesty for crimes against civilians perpetuate insecurity. Don’t take us on our word, look at history.
The United Nations was born out of World War 2 and the deaths of about 80 million people. The brave generation who fought and endured concluded that no country would be safe from the threat of war without international laws and institutions to prevent armed conflict and hold aggressors accountable.
It is why planning for the creation of the UN began long before military victory was assured. It is why the Allied Powers prosecuted Nazi leaders for war crimes in a court of law, rather than simply vanquishing them on the battlefield.
The principle that no country should be allowed to use its sovereignty as an excuse to attack its neighbours or commit crimes against its own people, derives from that experience. Since then, we have seen decades of efforts to erode impunity for crimes against humanity, including the war crimes tribunals for Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court: set up not to supplant national justice but as a court of last resort in cases where there is neither the will nor the capability to achieve justice locally.
The existing system is far from perfect and justice has been selectively applied, but our goal should be to improve, not undermine, the gains of recent years, at a time of growing threats to international security. There is no nation so powerful that it can afford a weakening of the rules-based international system.
The conflicts in Syria and Myanmar trigger every tripwire for collective diplomatic international action through the UN: alleged war crimes against a civilian population, threats to international peace and security and, in the case of Syria, the repeated use of banned weapons. Much of the same could be said of the conflict in Yemen.
Yet millions of the citizens of these and other countries still see no credible prospect of justice and accountability.
We hear again the excuse of national sovereignty being used to shield those responsible for atrocities. If this goes unchallenged there will be no deterrent against future aggressors and the result will be an even more dangerous international environment.
Leaders attending the General Assembly should adopt measures to promote accountability, even in cases where there is little current prospect of Security Council action. Specifically, we should strengthen our ability to gather and assess evidence, particularly in cases involving mass rape and other gender-based crimes.
Two years ago the General Assembly voted to establish an Independent International Mechanism to collect, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Syria. There are now calls for the creation of a similar body for the investigation of crimes against the Rohingya people, to prepare files for a future prosecution.
We believe that UN member states should now go further, to create a permanent, independent investigatory body with a mandate to be deployed to gather and assess evidence in cases involving alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and other grave violations of human rights.
Such a body should have a clear mandate, strong investigative powers, dedicated staff and sustainable funding. It could either grow out of the existing mechanism for Syria, which could be enlarged and made permanent, or it could be established as a new and separate body modelled, for instance, on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
A country’s action to uphold human rights internationally is a measure of its strength in foreign policy. It is no coincidence that many of the people most committed to the principle of international justice have had personal experience of war, just as some of the loudest voices calling for greater investment in diplomacy and development today are senior military figures.
Generations before us have tried to create the conditions for lasting peace, and to widen and deepen respect for human rights internationally. We have benefited from their far-sightedness and ought to be capable of equal strength of purpose.
To neglect to do everything in our power to ensure that accountability and redress are at the centre of our efforts to resolve contemporary conflicts would be a strategic as well as a moral failure.
• Lord Hague and Angelina Jolie are co-founders of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, a global campaign to end the use of rape as a weapon of war.
– © The Daily Telegraph..