Thank you, President Duda, for organizing this important debate. It’s not often that we take time to think deeply about why we’re here and what we want to accomplish, so I appreciate this opportunity. I welcome Judge Owada, thank him for his briefing, and wish to express my deep appreciation for his many years of distinguished service. I thank President Meron for his statement and, particularly, for his important work on international criminal law. I also thank Ms. Viotti for her remarks.
Even though this is a debate about international law, it’s worth stepping back to think about what the people who wrote the UN Charter set out to create. The preamble of the Charter begins, “We the peoples of the United Nations,” echoing the U.S. Constitution, which begins with “We the people of the United States.”
Joining the United Nations is an act of sovereign peoples who came together to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small…” In this way, the Charter makes a clear connection between respecting human rights and upholding and promoting peace. Respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual is fundamental to international law. It is also fundamental to the founding values of the United States.
Our longstanding national commitment to human rights is why the United States made human rights a key theme of our last presidency of the Security Council. Durable peace cannot be separated from respect of human rights. In the last year, the United States has championed a number of efforts to highlight this connection. We’ve emphasized the connection between the way the Iranian, Syrian, Venezuelan, and North Korean regimes treat their citizens and the threat to peace and security these governments pose internationally.
The Security Council has also recognized the connection between human rights and peace. We mandate many of the Council’s peacekeeping and political missions to promote human rights and report on human rights violations and abuses. In many places, these missions are the first to know about human rights violations and abuses. We need to support these missions and ensure they fulfil their role to protect human dignity.
A related issue is the obligations of Member States under international humanitarian law. Here, too, the Security Council has never been clearer about what we expect from parties of conflict. The Council has adopted resolutions and statements on the protection of civilians, children in armed conflict, medical neutrality, and famine in armed conflict. Many of our resolutions addressing conflicts include a demand for unfettered humanitarian access. Many of our sanctions regimes allow for the listing of individuals or groups that obstruct that humanitarian aid.
The Security Council has been increasingly outspoken and demanding of respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. This is important. But the challenge that remains is a familiar one: following through.
Human rights violations and abuses and humanitarian needs have only increased on our watch. And our response has been completely inadequate.
Some argue that the Security Council has no business in a nation’s domestic disputes. A nation’s sovereignty, they argue, prevents any outside action, even when people are suffering and abused, and even when that nation’s neighbors feel the consequences. We, too, recognize and cherish our sovereignty and the sovereignty of other nations.
But here’s the thing: joining the United Nations, and pledging to abide by the words of its Charter, is the act of sovereign peoples, of sovereign nations. It is an act that is freely chosen.
Governments cannot use sovereignty as a shield when they commit mass atrocities, proliferate weapons of mass destruction, or perpetrate acts of terrorism. In these instances, the Security Council must be prepared to act. That’s why we’re here.
That’s why the Council has such wide-ranging authority to impose sanctions, establish tribunals, or authorize the use of force. We have these tools because the people who drafted the Charter realized that there might be times when the Council needs to resort to its broad authority under Chapter VII.
And it’s the inability of the Council to follow up, especially when it comes to human rights and humanitarian issues, that allows suffering to continue. And it is the inability to act that erodes our credibility and makes it more likely that more people will suffer in the future. I again thank the President of Poland for calling this critical debate. There are so many places in the world where human dignity and well-being are under assault today. There is so much more good work that we could be doing.
As I mentioned earlier, the reasons for our failures are often obvious. But the Security Council’s continued paralysis in the face of so much suffering is unacceptable. It should be unacceptable to all of us. We’ve accepted this mandate. We have the tools necessary to follow through. The time has come to recall the fundamental purpose of the United Nations, and for the sovereign peoples who make up the United Nations to come together to take meaningful action to fulfill it.