69th General Assembly of the United Nations Ministerial meeting of 25 September 2014 “Regulating the veto in the event of mass atrocities”

I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting, France and Mexico, and particularly Minister Laurent Fabius, for leading this important discussion on whether the Security Council’s permanent members should refrain from using the veto in situations of mass atrocities. I am honoured to be invited to participate.

The privileges granted by the UN Charter to the Council’s Permanent Members come with responsibilities of course. For the proper functioning and the legitimacy of the UN collective security system, it is crucial the Council acts – and is seen to be acting – in ways that further the objective of securing global peace and security, in conformity with justice and international law. The narrower political, economic or commercial interests of one State, should not trump this or, at the very least, should provide no shelter to those who perpetrate gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide – the world’s worst criminals.

All Member States, including the Council’s permanent members, have legal obligations regarding protection of the lives and dignity of human beings. These include peremptory norms, or jus cogens obligations, that are incumbent on all States; and other obligations arising from States’ accession to specific treaties. States must respect the objects and purposes of the relevant norms and treaties, and must at the very least refrain from undermining them.

Thus, Member States should refrain from decisions which would undermine or obstruct action that seeks to further these norms. Surely, ladies and gentlemen, a State-Party to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which has undertaken to prevent and punish genocide, should not, according to this logic, impede collective action of the Security Council when it is designed to prevent genocide? And in the case of grave breaches of international humanitarian law or war crimes, then surely States-party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions – as are all five permanent Council Members – which have committed not only to respect those Conventions but also to ensure their respect – should not block action by the Council that would uphold those Conventions?

It is a moral and a legal obligation to save lives. In recent years, the Council’s inability to take decisive action regarding a number of appalling crises has led to enormous, avoidable, human suffering. It has shaken confidence in our institutions. It has granted time and space to the perpetrators to commit more violations, and made them far less likely to provide access to UN officials or to respond to their concerns.

Therefore, from a human rights perspective, the adoption of a code of conduct on use of the veto, in very specific circumstances where well-founded facts demonstrate that international crimes are occurring or about to occur, would demonstrate on the part of the permanent members of the Council that quality of leadership and responsibility which our world so badly needs. The status quo is ultimately harmful for all, primarily for the victims of course, but also for the Council’s standing and legitimacy, and therefore for the capacity of the UN to deliver peace and stability where they are needed most desperately, on the ground.

Members of the Council have been mandated to act collectively in the pursuit of peace and security. They have a clear and urgent responsibility towards the women, men and children who are threatened by war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The power to use the veto is, like all powers, a power to be exercised responsibly.

A commitment not to use the veto when quick and decisive action is needed to avert or halt gross human rights violations, war crimes and other international crimes would have a powerful preventive effect: would-be perpetrators may, in many instances, refrain from engaging in such crimes if they expect the Council to act promptly and decisively.
Thank you. 7.6 minutes

André-Michel Essoungou
Public Information Officer
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
New York Office (OHCHR NYO)
United Nations
E-mail: essoungou@un.org
Tel: +1 (917) 367-9995
Web: newyork.ohchr.org

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