Subject: Text of Statement by Mary Robinson to Security Council
Date: Sat, 18 Sep 1999 04:32:31 EDT




to the Security Council at the presentation of the report of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict New York, 16 September 1999

Mr. President

I warmly welcome this opportunity to address members of the Security Council. I wish to express my appreciation to the Council for having commissioned this report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and thank the Secretary-General for an excellent, clear and concise document.

I am pleased to be here with you today as the report raises issues close to my heart. The report accurately reflects the innumerable challenges which the United Nations faces in its work and so many of the human rights issues which my staff and I address on a daily basis. My Office is more than willing to play its part in implementing the report's constructive recommendations on the effective implementation of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, and on the prevention of gross violations of human rights so crucial to national and regional stability and thus to international peace and security.

As High Commissioner for Human Rights I have assumed a burden of listening: listening to the pain and anguish of victims of violations; listening to the anxieties and fears of human rights defenders. I am glad to share this burden with you today, Members of the Council, because you have the power and possibilities to alleviate the pain and to prevent some of the anxieties being realised.

If I refer to East Timor first it is because the terrible events of recent days are so fresh in my mind. The awful abuses committed in East Timor have shocked the world - and rightly so, since it would be hard to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The murders, maimings, rapes and countless other atrocities committed by the militias with the involvement of elements of the security forces were especially repugnant because they came in the aftermath of the freely expressed wishes of the East Timorese people about their political future. I saw evidence of a well-planned and systematic policy of killings, displacement, destruction of property and intimidation. There must be accountability for the grave violations committed in East Timor. My recommendation is the establishment of an international commission of enquiry to gather and analyse evidence of the events in East Timor.

What happened in East Timor is a graphic example of the plight of civilians in conflict situations. And East Timor is just the latest example. In the Former Yugoslavia, I met women and girls who had been sexually assaulted, raped and forced into sexual slavery. In Sierra Leone, I met children whose arms or legs had been brutally cut off during the civil war. I listened to accounts of children being abducted by rebels and sent to training centres or directly to the battlefront. Children were forced to attack their own villages and families and commit the most horrendous atrocities. Many of these child soldiers have been killed, while others were maimed and psychologically scarred for life. In Colombia and Cambodia, human rights defenders vividly described the climate of violence in which they were carrying on their activities at great personal risk. Reports from Angola tell how rebels provoked a mass movement of displaced persons desperate to reach the relatively safe haven of provincial capitals.

Mr. President,

It had been expected that the collapse of superpower rivalry would lead to a reduction in conflict, but the decline in inter-State fighting has been more than made up for in the growth of vicious internal conflicts, often unpredictable and volatile. These are conflicts that drag on for years without settlement or that flare up afresh when peace seemed to be at hand. The village has become the battlefield and the civilian population the primary target. Girls and women are routinely subjected to sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Children are recruited and kidnapped to become child soldiers, forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults.

Both the Secretary General's report and my own experiences bring home the reality: civilians are no longer just victims of war - today they are regarded as instruments of war. Starving, terrorising, murdering, raping civilians - all are seen as legitimate. Sex is no defense nor is age; indeed, it is women, children and the elderly who are often at greatest risk. That is a strange, terrible state of affairs in the year after we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Conflicts almost always lead to massive human rights violations but also erupt because human rights are violated due to oppression, inequality, discrimination and poverty. These conditions are exacerbated when the State is too weak or unable to address them efficiently. Human rights violations are thus both a consequence of and a contributing factor to instability and further conflict. And, as a result of globalization and increasing interdependence between States, conflicts which are essentially internal often have spillover effects beyond national borders.

As so clearly underscored by the Secretary-General in his report, there is an intrinsic link between systematic and widespread violations of the rights of civilians and the erosion of international peace and security. For example, in Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia, the Security Council has recognized that the repression of the civilian population has led to consequences that threatened peace and security in the region. Human security has become synonymous with international security. Human security can only be guaranteed through the full respect of all fundamental rights. This intrinsic link demands the attention and action of the Security Council in the field of human rights protection and the prevention of massive and gross violations.

The first need today is not that we write new laws, but that we implement what already exists in the field, close to the victims and where it really matters. To this end, I wish to express my support for those recommendations in the report which call on States to ratify all of the international instruments in the areas of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, to withdraw reservations and, most importantly, to comply fully with their provisions. Could we not also take the concrete step of raising the minimum age for participation in hostilities to 18 years?

A serious issue which must be addressed is accountability. We are increasingly being faced with the dilemma of having to stop atrocities being committed and seeking avenues for the peaceful settlement of conflicts on the one hand, while needing to hold accountable and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations, on the other. To grant amnesty to the authors of the most atrocious crimes for the sake of peace and reconciliation may be tempting but it contradicts the purpose and principles of the UN Charter as well as internationally observed principles and standards. For these reasons, the recommendations in the Secretary General's report on enforcing accountability for war crimes and on measures to deter and contain those guilty of egregious human rights violations are especially important.

I wish to commend the Security Council for having established the two ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I warmly welcome the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court providing jurisdiction over the three core crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. We must move forward now and ensure that our collective support for the establishment of an effective International Criminal Court, will, through the speedy ratification of its Statute, be a significant milestone in the struggle to strengthen respect for human rights and humanitarian and refugee law.

Mr. President,

The best protection for civilians in armed conflict is prevention. By addressing the root causes of conflict and seeking to defuse tensions, the atrocities and violations of fundamental rights committed during armed conflict can be prevented. The major building blocks for peacebuilding and reconciliation are good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights, a strong civil society, and institutions which can guarantee an environment conducive to stability and peace.

The Security Council has a vital role to play, both at the prevention stage and, should that fail, in the deployment of peacekeepers to minimise the impact of conflict on civilians. I welcome the fact that the Security Council is looking to adapt its methods of work to focus on the goal of better protecting individuals in the face of this formidable challenge.

After reading the Secretary General's report, and hearing his presentation of today, nobody could any longer complain that they did not realise how bad the situation facing civilians in today's armed conflicts was. It should be our collective goal to implement the recommendations of the report and so develop enforceable mechanisms for the protection of civilians in armed conflict. This is the only way we will deliver on our promises to guarantee a life of respect, dignity and human rights for all.

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