Remarks at a UN General Assembly Plenary Session on the Responsibility to Protect

Ambassador Kelley Currie
U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
June 25, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President. Today, we are witnessing the record-breaking levels of human displacement, with unprecedented numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons forced to flee their homes. The fully manmade humanitarian and human rights crises, such as those, in Syria, Burma, and South Sudan, that are driving this mass displacement, highlight the urgent need for all Member States to adhere to international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and the need for coordinated and early international response to mass atrocities. The United States remains deeply committed to preventing, mitigating, and responding to atrocity crimes, and we urge the international community to do more to act in concert and respond before atrocities occur. \We are pleased to be here today to reaffirm our support for the responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and to make a particular plea for more timely and decisive action at the Security Council on current and future humanitarian crises.

We are currently observing the tremendous human toll resulting from unchecked atrocities across the globe. On South Sudan, the Council has been paralyzed since it passed resolution 2206 in 2015. Meanwhile more than two million refugees have fled the fighting in the last two years. The UN has observed and reported on the widespread commission of mass atrocities and gross human rights violations. We have recently renews the sanctions established under Security Council resolution 2206, but we must do more. The United States has repeatedly called on the Council and the United Nations to support sanctions on those accountable for these atrocities and for a comprehensive arms embargo. Our commitment to the Responsibility to Protect should result in real action to address modern-day atrocities, such as in South Sudan, yet we have too often fallen short or failed to act when we can could and should.

We welcome the Secretary-General’s report on early warning and early action, including the assertion that effective atrocity prevention means assisting countries to avert the outbreak of atrocity crimes. The United States believes that more should be done to improve our responses to early warning signals, including overcoming the uncertainties, hesitancies, and lack of political will which impede early action. It is worth the investment to prevent the high human cost of these crimes. In fact, we all know that the costs of prevention – in the form of improving human rights institutions, the fair administration of justice, and equitable, accountable governance pales in comparison to the political, financial, and military costs typically required to respond to a crisis. We applaud the Secretary-General’s efforts to empower and coordinate a broader set of actors, including civil society, parliaments, national human rights institutions, regional organizations and the UN system.

Further strengthening the principle of the responsibility to protect, and building knowledge of the range of preventative actions, can also help turn early warning into early action. To these ends, the United States supports scheduling regular, open debates in the Security Council, including on emerging threats and human rights issues that threaten to escalate into atrocities, and we support including the “Responsibility to Protect” as a standing item on the General Assembly agenda. We also commend the Secretary-General’s initiative to gather and share lessons learned on effective early warning and early action. We strongly encourage the Secretary General to appoint the next Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect as soon as possible to advance international commitments and tools for effective atrocity prevention within the UN framework.

The United States encourages member states to follow the Secretary’s call to create a national focal point for the responsibility to protect, conduct assessments consistent with the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, and take early action on the findings. It is vital that these focal points do more than simply carry a title. The U.S. continues to strengthen its preventative capacities through the Atrocity Prevention Board, which coordinates a “whole of government” approach to bolster our ability to forecast, prevent, and respond to mass atrocities. This board oversees global risk analysis, followed by deeper analysis of prioritized countries, identifying potential pathways to atrocities, and opportunities to prevent or mitigate them, including by expanding existing resiliencies. The board has coordinated a range of actions such as targeted sanctions, preventive diplomacy and programming, mediation, improving adherence to the rule of law, documenting atrocities, supporting peacekeepers, and evacuating populations under attack.

While the United States recognizes the sovereignty of all member states, we remind member states of the commitments they voluntarily entered into to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. We continue to work with partner countries to strengthen coordination and share best practices, including through the United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council, the Peacebuilding Commission, and the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect. We also recognize the critical role of nongovernmental organizations, the media, business and religious leaders, and local populations, including women, in efforts to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. The United States actively engages with these civic actors and organizations to enhance early warning and early action efforts, and reflect on lessons learned.

When prevention fails, promoting accountability for mass atrocity crimes is a priority for the United States. Bringing perpetrators to justice can deter those who otherwise might be emboldened to follow in their footsteps, and can help advance post-conflict reconciliation. The U.S. government is committed to holding those responsible for atrocities accountable by appropriately bringing them to justice in independent and impartial processes in accordance with fair trial guarantees. We also recognize the importance of programs to support survivors and promote reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities, as a history of atrocities is one of the strongest predictors of future atrocities.

The U.S. government supports the Secretary-General’s effort to better coordinate the UN system to prevent atrocities. In particular, we strongly support the Secretary General’s recommendation that the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict work more closely with the Joint Office of the Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and Responsibility to Protect, and we commend the excellent work of the SRSG, particularly in the Burma context. Women are often uniquely positioned within their communities to identify social behaviors and patterns that are warning signs of violence against civilians. The United States strongly supports efforts to promote the meaningful participation of women in the prediction and prevention of outbreaks of mass atrocities. To this end, President Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act in 2017, making the U.S. the first country to enact legislation incorporating UN Security Council Resolution 1325 into national law.

States that disregard or violate their primary responsibility to protect their own citizens represent one of the greatest threats to international peace and security we face today. Those who attempt to shield their crimes behind a veil of national sovereignty should find no comfort in this hall. As the preamble of the universal declaration – written in the aftermath of war and horrors – says, “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” – a statement that is sadly no less true today than when it was 70 years ago when that foundational document was created. We have yet to achieve the “highest aspirations” laid out in the universal declaration, but in fully implementing the Responsivity to Protect, we can remain true to those aspirations and our national and collective commitments to them.