Myriad people took to the streets of Los Angeles on Friday, marching through the city and onto the Turkish consulate. They were demanding that the killing of two million Armenians by the Turks in 1915 be recognized as genocide.
More than two hundred took part in the rally to mark the centennial of the massacre. Demonstrators started the march from the Little Armenia neighborhood and proceeded to walk six miles to the Turkish consulate on Wilshire Boulevard.
Along the way, people shouted slogans such as “Shame on Turkey,” and “We want justice.”
Turkey has refused to acknowledge the slaughter of two million Armenian Christians as genocide. Forty-three states in America have accepted the event as such, but the federal government has not.
Obama promised to recognize the genocide prior to his election in 2008, but has since avoided the term to placate key NATO ally Turkey. In remembering the 100th anniversary, Obama used words such as “massacre” and “horrific violence,” but stopped short of calling it “genocide.”
Almost all societies have diverse populations. Divisions between national, racial, ethnic, and religious groups and tensions fueled by past and present patterns of discrimination are among the key risk factors for conflict and atrocity crimes. Managing diversity constructively and building resilient, inclusive and transparent societies is crucial for the prevention of violent conflict as well as atrocity crimes, which we define as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
We have supported the initiative to establish national focal points on the prevention of genocide and on the responsibility to protect and to create regional networks that can offer support to their members. We have much to learn from the initiatives of those States that are trying to integrate the prevention of atrocity crimes into the work of their national administrations.
The international community does not always live up to its potential when it comes to preventing atrocity crimes. Too often we find ourselves looking back and having to admit that we could and should have done better, and done more. The genocides of Rwanda and Srebrenica are two severe cases in which the international community has failed to prevent and respond in a timely manner. And, right at this moment, in Syria we are once again seeing how a lack of response costs lives every single day. It seems that morality often has to stand back, behind other interests, and that is certainly something we need to discuss more.
Many States - especially in the developed world - perceive prevention first and foremost as a foreign policy matter rather than a domestic concern, linked to their aid and assistance to other States. This perspective fails to acknowledge that atrocity crimes can happen anywhere and anytime, and that no State is immune to them.
Atrocity crimes are processes, not singular events. They do not simply occur overnight, but are being foreshadowed by the presence of risk factors and early warning signs, often over a period of years. Thus, there are many opportunities to prevent crises from escalating. After they reach a certain stage, however, the options for action are both more limited and more costly.
UN has developed a framework of analysis to assess the risk of genocide, and is in the process of expanding this framework to assess also the risk of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Having these analytical tools is one important step towards successful prevention, as for each risk factor identified there is an opportunity to address that risk through appropriate preventive action. We cannot stress enough the importance of remaining alert, and taking early measures for prevention.
A government’s lack of capacity to take the necessary measures for prevention is of course a risk factor in itself. And often, as history has painfully taught us, national institutions often fail completely once there is a situation of armed conflict or a situation in which atrocity crimes are being committed, particularly when the State is the perpetrator. The strengthening of both judicial and democratic institutions plays a vital role in building resilience to the risk of atrocity crimes, and international, regional as well as sub-regional mechanisms can assist with this process. We have seen, too, that post-conflict transitional justice processes, in the form of truth-seeking, individual prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reform , can be very helpful in promoting reconciliation and preventing relapse into further violence. Reviewing constitutional protections, fostering political pluralism and creating legitimacy through respect for the rule of law in all areas of government, are also important steps towards the restoration of peace and stability. There is a way out of crises. However, we should remember that responses to atrocity crimes will always be more costly and more complicated than their prevention.
Sovereignty can no longer be seen as a barrier to interference, but as a charge of responsibility under which the State is accountable to its people. During periods of conflict, particularly internal armed conflict, States have often failed to take responsibility for the protection of their populations and this failure has resulted in calls for action by the international community, including through intervention, in the most serious cases of State failure.
What we should keep in mind when talking about the responsibility to protect is that it is a principle that seeks to strengthen the sovereignty of states, not weaken it. History has shown that building societies resilient to atrocity crimes reinforces State sovereignty and increases prospects for peace and stability. The international community has a responsibility to support States in this regard, and to assist States that are under stress. States recognize the logic of this argument and are looking for ways in which to build their capacity to prevent atrocities so that their societies will flourish and will not be faced with the terrible human, political, economic and social consequences of atrocities and conflict.
The responsibility to protect underlines that there is no one size fits all approach to atrocity prevention. It stresses that each context is different and sets out a variety of ways in which States can live up to their responsibilities.
The word genocide is overused and often misused. We should be careful with terminology and focus instead on facts, the careful, credible documentation and reporting of developments worldwide that could increase the risk of genocide and the provision of this information to those in a position to influence policy and action in a timely manner including, ultimately, the Security Council.
It is true that some States have raised concerns about aspects of implementation of the responsibility to protect, which they see as a challenge to sovereignty. The actual wording of the commitment made by all States in paragraph 139 of the World Summit Outcome is to “take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations, as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.” Responsibility is in fact an ally of sovereignty; collective action by the international community to protect populations is not called for where a State fully discharges its sovereign responsibility to protect.
In reality, also, the Security Council is extremely reluctant to authorize the use of coercive measures, even in the most extreme cases, as we have seen in relation to the Council’s deliberations on the tragic situation in Syria.
A focus on preventive measures undertaken by Member States and with the assistance by the international community, also described as pillar I and pillar II of the responsibility to protect concept, has the potential to address existing negative perceptions, establish clarity about and build trust in the concept. The clear focus on the responsibility to protect was widely welcomed by Member States. During the informal, interactive dialogue of the General Assembly on the responsibility to protect, States also overwhelmingly agreed that the General Assembly should continue consideration of the concept and that the next report and debate should focus on how the international community can assist States in protecting their populations from atrocity crimes.
Some of the main risk factors associated with genocide are a history of genocide or other atrocity crimes against a particular population group and a lack of accountability for past atrocities. Thus, it remains extremely important to support both national and supranational legal structures and accountability processes. A fair and transparent accountability process does not only serve as deterrent, but also restores credibility in national institutions and help the difficult process of reconciliation in societies divided and damaged by conflict, thus reducing the risk of future atrocities.
We all have a role to play in advocating for preventive action, including national accountability processes and supranational legal structures, such as the ICC. We should engage with those actors who have concerns about the structures. Not to support accountability would be to fail the victims of atrocities.