It’s wonderful to be in Santa Barbara and to see such a good crowd – especially given the fact that it is beautiful Saturday morning in sunny California and genocide is the subject of our discussion. It is clear that I have strayed from my California roots and been on the East Coast too long, as I am reminded of a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker magazine, with the text, “Would you like to grab a drink after the Genocide panel?” How indeed, do we incorporate something like genocide into our “normal” lives?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Raphael Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’. Lemkin, a lawyer and Holocaust survivor wanted to find a way to describe the policies that were intended to exterminate Jews throughout Europe in order to prevent such a thing from happening again. Based on his efforts, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and went into force three years later. The Convention defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and it made genocide a punishable crime under international law.

Institutionalization of Hope

The United Nations was itself created from the ashes of World War II and the atrocities of the Holocaust in order to prevent the extraordinary human suffering witnessed at that time. From the beginning, the United Nations has spoken to the ideals of people around the world for a better and more secure future – it was what former President Clinton recently called the institutionalization of hope,” based on three ideals: the maintenance of international peace and security, the promotion of economic development, and the protection of human rights. As envisioned from the beginning of the Organization, governments could take action under the United Nations Charter to prevent genocide. The United Nations second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold said the United Nations’spare job was not to take us to Heaven but to keep us from Hell. Genocide is the ultimate Hell.

But we have not always lived up to the promise, sometimes succumbing to divisive international politics; the lack of collective political will to confront evil; and a callous tendency to preference sovereign rights of nations over the rights of vulnerable individuals in those nations. While the United Nations helped ultimately bring peace to Cambodia in the 1990s, it did so only after more than a million people died at the hands of the pathological Khmer Rouge regime. Alongside all countries of the world and all other international institutions, the United Nations failed to stop the mass murder of 800,000 in Rwanda in 1994. And again it failed, we all failed, to protect civilians from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the mid-90s.

In short, history demonstrates that the United Nations faces a fundamental dilemma: on the one hand it represents both the highest ideals of humanity and the “institutionalization of hope,” but at the same time, its high ambitions have often contrasted sharply with the realities of what national governments have been able to agree on and deliver.

While the United Nations may be imperfect, it is also indispensable. As the only universal body representing and bringing together every country and region of the world, the United Nations enjoys a unique legitimacy.

So the United Nations is being asked to do more and more things: a quadrupling of United Nations peacekeeping forces in the last decade, so that at this moment, with over 93,000 sets of “boots on the ground” in 18 hot-spots in every corner of the globe, the United Nations is second only to the US in terms of the number of troops deployed around the world. The United Nations has also been relied on for providing humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies, such as in Southeast Asia after the tsunami and in Darfur, so that now there are more humanitarian missions run by the United Nations than ever before, serving the needs of over 40 million people around the world each year in almost 40 countries. The United Nations has also become the pre-eminent provider of organizing and monitoring national elections. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals are a blueprint that have been agreed to by all the world’s countries to meet the needs of the poor, including halving extreme poverty and curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Responsibility to Protect

But what about preventing genocide?

Is the United Nations’role limited to providing the normative and legal framework for combating genocide embodied in the Convention? Or can the United Nations become the pre-eminent service provider in this area, as it has in peackekeeping, humanitarian, elections, and providing a framework for development? The United Nations is not a world government, and it does not have its own military to send in to prevent or stop genocide. Ultimately, the decision to intervene and deliver troops and equipment is up to the governments of the countries that make up the United Nations, and more specifically, the Security Council.
But the United Nations’s role is extremely important in getting governments to make that calculation. The Secretary-General has a moral voice to draw attention to humanitarian crises and he has done that tirelessly on Darfur.

And in September 2005 at the United Nations, the largest gathering of heads of state ever assembled took another huge step. They approved, by consensus, the principle of the “Responsibility to Protect” – the idea that every government has a responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, but when they are unable or unwilling to do so, the community of nations is be prepared to take collective action. In terms of international norms and law, this was a fundamental shift. Governments have always been able to hide behind sovereignty, by saying that they have a right to determine what goes on behind their own borders. Now, governments as large as China and as small as Burundi have acknowledged that they have a responsibility to their civilians and that failure to do so means that the international community has the responsibility and can take action, either through diplomatic, humanitarian, or other means, including military means (under Chapter VII) of the United Nations Charter.

Such a historic agreement is possible only through the United Nations. Those who criticize the United Nations, arguing instead for coalitions of the willing or alliances of democracies to replace it, have failed to realize that an agreement on how to address genocide by angels alone, leaves most of humanity at the mercy of those less angelically inclined. But through the United Nations we now have an agreed principle for protecting all of the world’s people.

However, despite its adoption last year, the Responsibility to Protect has not yet been operationalized. Turning it from a principle into an actionable norm is essential. Civil society and NGOs can help by influencing policy makers in governments and insisting that they put into action the Responsibility to Protect.
Three different types of United Nations institutions can play on enhanced role in the fight against genocide:

First, the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide

In 2004, the Secretary-General appointed Mr. Juan Méndez, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide based on the lessons learned from past instances of collective failure to address gross human rights violations. The Special Advisor acts as an early warning mechanism to bring attention to situations that could result in genocide and advises the Secretary-General and the Security Council. This is the first time the United Nations has had a position that is devoted exclusively to preventing genocide and mass abuses of human rights, and he has been active on Darfur, traveling to the region and reporting back on how to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Second, the new Human Rights Council

Another recent development that can significantly bolster human rights at the United Nations is the establishment of the Human Rights Council to replace the Commission on Human Rights. The world needs an intergovernmental body which effectively deals with human rights. The Human Rights Council is a crucial opportunity and holds great promise despite some early stumbles that make it appear to be replicating some of the failures of the Commission. It meets year around and has a new feature – the universal peer review that ensures that all members, including the most powerful countries, who sit in judgment of human rights situations around the world, have their own human rights records scrutinized. The Council is an important development but it has to be supported and made to work.
Third, the International Criminal Court , war crimes tribunals, and “hybrid” courts

Within the last 10 years, we have seen ICC investigations on Sudan and Uganda have dramatically changed the political equation there. remarkable progress in international justice – the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, which have tried the first genocide cases against top officials, and the hybrid national/international courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia. But questions have been raised about whether pursuing justice may undermine peace. In cases like Uganda, where the suffering has gone on for two decades, some say that we should not disrupt such hard won peace talks by trying the perpetrators. But peace without justice for the victims is not sustainable or wise.

Darfur as a test case

So we have witnessed progress in key areas. But can we prevent genocide?

The singular biggest test we face is that in Darfur, Sudan.

The situation on the ground is stark. Since the conflict began in 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed from fighting, famine, or disease, and over 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. As a reminder, just 6 days ago large scale militia attacks in West Darfur on 8 settlements caused scores of civilian deaths, including 27 children under the age of 12.

With the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May we had a framework for ending the violence and a road map for moving to stability, but not all parties have accepted the Agreement. The Security Council adopted a resolution to send in United Nations peacekeeping troops. This has been rejected by the Sudanese government. We therefore need smart pressure and a global diplomatic campaign. In the meantime, the African Union has done a tremendous job, but it needs to be strengthened. The UN has committed to providing support for the AU mission in Sudan, and we are looking at bolstering that support, but again, contributions depend on Member States.

Now we have to alter the calculation of potential perpetrators of abuses, and equally importantly, make it much more difficult for governments which decide not to act to prevent genocide.

The Responsibility to Protect must be put into practice. The role of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide could be strengthened. The Human Rights Council, should adopt a country-specific resolution on Darfur as recommended by the Secretary-General that urges the government of Sudan to allow United Nations peacekeepers into Darfur.

Achieving a lasting peace in Darfur also means bringing those responsible to justice. The Security Council has referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court. The case against the perpetrators is being built as we speak. Action by the International Criminal Court must be supported and seen through.


In order to prevent genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, we still face tremendous challenges. But nothing is inevitable. Genocide is indeed preventable. 60 years ago, we didn’t even have a name for this evil. Now, we not only can name it, we have legal mechanisms obligating all to act to stop it, and increasing experience at trying to stop it. We now have the knowledge, we have the United Nations institution to help organize our response, and the political, economic, and military tools to prevent it. The question is, “Will we use them?”

Let us work together to do so. Santa Barbara may feel as far from Darfur as a place can be – indeed it is. And yet, you all turned up today to engage on this most difficult of subjects. A crucial first step. Now organize, let your representatives know how you feel. The United States as a country must show leadership. Support United Nations efforts. Place pressure on all national governments to fulfill their obligations. Support the NGOs whose dedicated staff are risking their lives on the front lines.

Today’s topic was “Who speaks for humanity?” One of my favorite saying is by Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German citizen of conscience who reflected on his experience with genocide in his own country 60 years ago:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

So to the question posed today, “Who speaks for Humanity?”, the answer is clear – we do. We must.

Robert Orr is Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The speech was given at a United Nations Day event held in Santa Barbara, California on November 4, 2006.