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64th plenary meeting: Debate on the Responsibility to Protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity [item 135]

Statement by H.E. Mr. Bob Rae, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations

New York, 17 May 2021

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Mr. President,

Canada aligns itself with the statement delivered by the Group of Friends.

We also proudly count ourselves as a co-sponsor of the resolution under consideration today. I strongly encourage all Member States to vote in favour.

Mr. President,

Twenty years ago, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published its final report, entitled The Responsibility to Protect.

The Commissioners reframed sovereignty not as an absolute right, but as a responsibility to be upheld. And they set out the responsibilities that we have, as an international community, to prevent and protect populations from the gravest of crimes.

Their report laid the groundwork for this Assembly’s momentous – and unanimous – agreement to the Responsibility to Protect at the 2005 World Summit. 

Since then, we have collectively deepened our understanding of R2P. We have learned, through our successes and shortcomings, of the many tools we have at our disposal to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes.

Yet, there are those who continue to promote the notion that R2P is solely about the use of military force.

The principle has been used, and abused, to justify such action. But I would argue that this notion is false, for two reasons:

First, it willfully ignores the principle’s emphasis on prevention, as well as the wide array of responsive measures under the R2P framework that are peaceful and non-coercive.  

Second, it subverts our collective agreement, made together in this Assembly and reaffirmed by the Security Council and Human Rights Council, that peaceful, preventive measures should come as a first resort.

While we have deepened our understanding of R2P, Mr. President, we continue to struggle in moving, “from polemics – and often paralysis – towards action,” as the International Commission put it twenty years ago. 

As we speak, courageous protesters in Myanmar are braving bullets and mass arrests following an illegal coup by a military junta bent on brutally repressing their right to democracy.

In the face of this deadly violence, the people of Myanmar are pleading for the international community to live up to our commitment to R2P.

We must use all available tools to prevent further violence and atrocities against civilians in Myanmar. We must show the people of Myanmar that we have not turned our backs on them.

We must also spare no effort in the pursuit of accountability and justice.

I think, here, of the countless Syrian men, women, and children whose lives have been torn apart by the civil war.

For 10 gruelling years, the Security Council has failed the people of Syria. Each veto cast has only ratcheted up the violence and prolonged the suffering of Syrian civilians.

The use and threat of the veto in Syria and other situations where atrocity crimes are being perpetrated is shameful, and may be contrary to obligations under the UN Charter and international law.

But let me be clear, Mr. President.

The enablers of the Assad regime may shield the perpetrators of atrocity crimes in Syria today. But justice for the gravest of international crimes, including torture and sexual violence, will not be denied.

The International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the work of independent fact-finding mechanisms and commissions of inquiry are all crucial tools in our pursuit of accountability – in Syria and beyond.

Mr. President,

We need to plan for accountability from the very first days of our response to any crisis.

Because accountability contributes to prevention. And prevention is, and has always been, the most important dimension of R2P.

The Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund can be catalytic forces for prevention – if they are empowered and sufficiently funded.

Civil society, local media and journalists, indigenous leaders, and women peacebuilders and human rights defenders are also powerful agents of prevention.

And their crucial work is all the more important as we address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has magnified and revealed vulnerabilities in all societies. In societies that are divided, or those facing conflict and insecurity, the pandemic could heighten risk factors that lead to atrocity crimes.

We face in this pandemic a powerful test of our collective commitment to human rights and inclusion.

By promoting and preserving universal human rights, and by building open and inclusive societies, we will not only build back better from COVID-19. We can also address the risk factors that may lead to atrocity crimes in the first place.

That is the essence of the Responsibility to Protect, Mr. President. 

Canada looks forward to this Assembly continuing its full consideration of R2P, and we will play our part in implementing the principle. 

Thank you.

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