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Prevention, promotion and protection: our shared responsibility

It is an honour for me to join you today to mark the centenary of one of Sweden’s greatest sons and one of the last century’s most inspirational figures. Let me thank all those who have organised this important conference, particularly the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and Lund University.

I consider myself very fortunate, through my wife Nane, to consider this country my second home; and also to have a family connection to the man whose courage and conviction we are celebrating today. It is clear, of course, that the example he set is no less compelling or relevant today than it was in the darkest days of human history 65 years ago.
For although we have made great strides towards the protection of human rights, we remain a long way from our goal – Wallenberg’s goal – of a peaceful and just world. We meet here as conflicts rage and atrocities continue – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan.

Innocent civilians continue to be killed and targeted in too many countries around the world. Thousands of people remain unjustly imprisoned. Gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity and war crimes go unpunished – in Sri Lanka, in Darfur, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We must not, of course, ignore the tremendous progress that has been made. In this regard, I wish to pay tribute to the Swedish Government for remaining steadfast champions for human rights. Over the years, international laws and institutions have been developed to promote and protect human rights and to prohibit, prevent and punish the worst international crimes.
State sovereignty is no longer an absolute shield behind which governments may hide to do what they please.

Beyond formal laws and institutions, we have also seen the growth in all regions of the world of an active civil society dedicated to the cause of human rights. It is this mass movement for human rights, uniting people of all ages and backgrounds that is perhaps the greatest achievement and owes most to the legacy we are celebrating today.

For it is the clamour for justice from millions of individuals that has driven governments and the United Nations to act, and is our best hope of defending human rights. We have now tipped the balance, I believe irreversibly, towards accountability.
So there has been progress. But I wonder, if Wallenberg were here with us today, what would be more surprising to him?
Would it be the many international laws and institutions now in place to prohibit and, at least in theory, prevent and punish genocide and war crimes?

Or the number of countries where allegations of abuse persist, the widespread use of torture, the extent of human trafficking, the targeting of civilians in conflict and the war criminals who remain free? I believe that to remain true to Wallenberg’s legacy, and to give meaning to his sacrifice, we must focus not on our successes but on our failures.

We must always ask ourselves – what more can we do to prevent the appalling abuse of human rights? Today, I want to share a few reflections of my own – ideas that draw on my experience as Secretary-General but have also been shaped by more recent events.

I want to raise, in particular, two issues – the need to prevent and end armed conflict and the need to protect civilian lives while conflict persists. Ladies and gentlemen, it is obvious but needs emphasis that it is during armed conflict when most of the worst human rights crimes occur.

And it is systematic human rights abuse, especially when directed at specific communities, which is often the underlying reason that armed conflict erupts. In short, if we protect human rights, we have a better chance to avoid armed conflict.   And if through peaceful means we can end conflicts that do erupt, we protect rights.

Consider the past year of upheaval and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. No one can doubt that the descent into violence was hastened by the authoritarian character of the regimes, the prevention of peaceful means of protest, and the closure of democratic space.

There are, of course, many ways to build respect for fundamental human rights. The international community can play a crucial role, not least in making clear that there is an internationally-agreed set of standards, and the corresponding obligations on governments.

But inspired by Wallenberg’s example, I want to emphasise today the role of individual action and of supporting those individuals and organisations determined to make a difference. We cannot pretend we were not warned about the widespread abuses of human rights in all of the countries where protests have erupted.

For many years, lawyers, scholars, activists and others within these countries have alerted us to what was happening.
But in too many cases, the international community has ignored not only what they have said, but also the treatment these courageous individuals and groups have received.

There are, of course, international procedures to monitor how governments treat those who speak out in favour of human rights peacefully, including a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. But although we are alerted when these activists are harassed, imprisoned or even killed, too often nothing has been done.

Time and time again, we have seen democratic governments turn a blind eye to repression, or let their economic and security agendas trump their support for human rights beyond their borders. We must speak out against these double standards to remind our own political leaders that systematic human rights abuse is a trigger for conflict and sustained, principled and active diplomacy is necessary to end it.

We should not continue to wait for conflict to erupt before envoys are appointed, and the UN’s political role is engaged.
Preventive and consistent diplomacy must become the normal, not the exceptional, response to a human rights crisis that threatens to erupt into civil war.

Too often the Security Council response is weak or non-existent; its actions driven not by principle but by politics and selectivity. Ladies and gentlemen, we need the same consistency and courage in finding peaceful solutions when conflict does break out.

I understand why there is cynicism about dialogue and peace negotiations. Too often ‘peace processes’ seem to prolong conflict with negotiations dragging on for years. When agreements are finally reached, we may see warlords prospering and national leaders incapable of assuming the responsibility of democratic governance.

We must, however, be careful not to let cynicism gain the upper hand. Instead of losing heart, we need to improve our efforts to foster dialogue and find solutions. Research shows that the number and deadliness of civil wars has declined from their peak in the early 1990s.

It is clear that the tools we have been deploying to prevent and end these conflicts do make a difference. Active mediation, the deployment of peacekeepers, and the sustained engagement and support of the international community in the post-conflict phase, all help explain why there are fewer deadly civil wars today.

When the international community speaks with one voice, and moves swiftly to make clear its demand for a peaceful solution and negotiated transfers of power, then much can be achieved. I know this from my experience mediating an end to the violence in Kenya following the election in 2008.

Sometimes, despite all our efforts, civil wars will erupt and continue. This sets new challenges, particularly how we can best protect civilians in the midst of conflict. On this point, much of the discussion in recent years has centred on the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

Building on our evolved understanding of sovereignty, R2P asserts that when states cannot or will not protect their populations from the worst crimes, other states, acting through the UN, should do so. The endorsement of this principle by UN Member States in 2005 was a momentous step.

It made clear that hand-wringing and appeals to conscience by the international community are not enough.
We must be ready to use all diplomatic, humanitarian and other means — including targeted sanctions against the leaders responsible — to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It also means that, as a last resort, the international community will be prepared to take collective action, including military force, through the Security Council to protect populations from these crimes.
We must be clear, however. Military action really must be the last resort.  It may be necessary in some situations but the decision must never be taken lightly.
War, even when waged lawfully and in defence of threatened populations, is destructive and inherently unpredictable.
Once engaged, the resort to force has its own logic. Hostilities may escalate quickly beyond a limited objective or outside intended boundaries.
War waged against “terror” or to protect civilians may, unintentionally, have disastrous consequences.
We also have to be realistic. Only on rare occasions will there be an international consensus in its favour or an international coalition willing to act.
Where a crisis occurs in an area of little strategic importance, where political will is lacking, or when the utility of a forceful response is in doubt, R2P may not offer much protection to those at risk – as we’ve seen in Darfur.
The reality is that military intervention to prevent mass atrocities will never be an easy option, and even where it is feasible it may be inadvisable.
We must, therefore, devote our energies to strengthening and using those measures short of the use of force.
These must include more effective and enforced use of targeted financial, travel, and economic sanctions on the leadership.
We need to see greater use of anti-impunity measures such as international commissions of inquiry and threatened criminal prosecutions, including by referral to the International Criminal Court, as well as assistance to local human rights defenders, arms embargoes and other measures.
Indeed, I believe such measures ought to be more systematically engaged as tools in the preventive diplomacy I spoke of earlier.
Crimes against humanity may occur even before a conflict erupts. When they do, tough measures like threatened prosecutions must be invoked wherever possible. Their deterrent effect should not be under-estimated.
But given the reason for us meeting today, let us all remember that Wallenberg did not need sanctions or the threat of force to save thousands of lives.
And in his memory, I want to emphasise what I consider to be an under-utilized protection tool – the deployment of civilians to act as skilled, independent and impartial monitors.
People speak of the act of “bearing witness”, but this is far too passive a description of what Wallenberg did.
It is not simply about being present and observing or monitoring – although we shouldn’t under-estimate the degree that being in a position to record what is happening can change behaviour.
Wallenberg saved lives by using his presence in Budapest proactively to extend protection.
He ensured those threatened with deportation to the death camps were given protective passports. He sheltered thousands in buildings to whom he extended Swedish consular status, and intervened with the German military authorities to prevent further transfers.
Few will be as courageous and committed as Wallenberg. But his legacy lives on today.
International human rights monitors and civilian protection staff are deployed, by the UN and other organisations, in many countries.
These monitors are the eyes and ears of the international community, reporting authoritatively on the situation with a link back to enforcement bodies, including the Security Council.  But they can do much more.
With support, they can provide encouragement and capacity to local civil society efforts, and even physical protection simply by their presence where needed.
They can amplify voices of restraint and reform within government and opposing forces, negotiate with leaders, reminding them of their obligations and duties under international law.
They can and do offer ‘neutral’ space in local neighbourhoods and communities where opposing factions can meet and negotiate.
Yet, although growing in importance, the numbers of such international civilian monitors remains a small fraction of the numbers of peacekeeping troops.
And the resources devoted to supporting their training and deployment is miniscule in contrast to the costs of a military intervention or peacekeeping operation.
Of course, the presence of international monitors in the midst of conflict is, on its own, no guarantee of protection. They need skilled staff, strong mandates and clear international support.
It will not always be possible or safe to deploy them, especially where the government concerned is actively opposed to their presence.
But I believe in many situations they can be a great force for good and remain an under-used resource.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is all too easy when looking at seemingly intractable problems to believe nothing can be done, or only governments or political leaders can take action.
This was not Raoul Wallenberg’s response. He believed it was his duty to come to the aid of his fellow human beings.
Thankfully, very few of us will witness such depravity or be asked to take such risks or make such a sacrifice.
But each of us must do all we can to bring injustice to the world’s attention and demand an effective response from our own leaders.
We must also remember that within our own communities, there will be those who are deliberately marginalised or made convenient scapegoats and be ready, as Wallenberg did, to spring to their defence.
Just think what more we can accomplish knowing that our actions express the convictions of a worldwide human rights movement, and with the obvious force of international law behind us?
This is the best way we can pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the man whose memory we celebrate today. Thank you.