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Genocide prevention and the UN: The potential of the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General

Friday, July 1st, 2005

Human Rights Tribune des droits humains
Volume 11, N آ؛ 2
By: Erik Friberg

At [UN] Headquarters there was not sufficient focus or institutional resources for early warning and risk analysis.†– Independent Inquiry into the action of the UN during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.[1]


The UN is currently not organized in such that the substantial and substantive information gathered through the various mechanisms of the UN human rights machinery in Geneva is brought together in a focused way, so as to better understand complex situations and thus be in a better position to take appropriate action. In short, there is a significant gap between the calls for effective conflict prevention and the institutional capacity of the UN as a whole. [2] One reminder of this disconnect is the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, which was surely preventable as it had been foreseen in the August 1993 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.[3]

April 2005 marked the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the atrocities committed towards Armenians and Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey (1915), the 60th anniversary of the end of the World War II and the liberation of the Jews, Roma and other survivors from Nazi concentration camps (1945), and the 30th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975).

With several relevant UN reform proposals currently under discussion (including a Mediation Support Unit, a Peacebuilding Commission and a revamping of the human rights machinery), one recent institutional development to strengthen the UN capacity to systematically prevent future genocides was the creation in 2004 of the position of a UN Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide (hereinafter referred to as the †کSASGPG’). How can the SASGPG become an effective tool, within the UN, to prevent future genocides?

UN Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide (SASGPG)

The post of a SASGPG was suggested by the UN Secretary-General in early 2004, as part of a larger Action Plan on the Prevention of Genocide.[4] On July 12, 2004, the UN Secretary-General named Juan E. Mendez, a human rights advocate, lawyer and former political prisoner from Argentina , as his first SASGPG, and provided the mandate.[5] The SASGPG is located in New York, holds a 40 per cent position and is assisted by a staff member from the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and a staff member from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Mandate and approach

The SASGPG’s mandate to address prevention in relation to †کgenocide or related crimes’ indicates that the SASGPG may become involved in situations when the prospects for genocide are quite distant, including addressing situations that run the risk of resulting in ethnic cleansing and gross violations of human rights. Mendez has stated that he should “not be extremely tied to an overly technical definition of genocideâ€, and that, “since the task is one of prevention, you have to act even before all of the elements of the definition fall into place.â€[6] Indeed, the mandate explicitly states that the Special Advisor is not intended to make a determination on whether genocide within the meaning of the Genocide Convention[7] has occurred or not. The function of the SASGPG is not to prosecute, judge or punish, but rather to focus on concrete conditions and issues where practical assistance and support can be provided.

The SASGPG will need to develop a sensitive but determined and operational approach. The mandate stipulates that “[t]he methodology employed would entail a careful verification of facts and serious political analyses and consultations, without excessive publicity,†and the purpose of activities to be “practical and intended to enable the United Nations to act in a timely fashion.†The verification of facts within the mandate opens the door for fact-finding missions, while consultations could take the form of facilitating in-country roundtables. By avoiding excessive publicity, the SASGPG could function as a †کfriendly advisor’ to warring parties alike, and thereby build confidence among all stakeholders, including governments. Not only must the SASGPG be independent, impartial, consistent and a person of integrity, he or she must also be viewed as being such. In addition to building confidence among the primary stakeholders, it will be crucial to build confidence among institutional partners within the UN system in order to mobilize resources beyond the SASGPG’s evidently under-staffed office. Indeed, there are several examples from the past where mechanisms and †کspecial offices’ have been isolated within the UN system. By employing and communicating a fundamentally assistance-oriented approach of what the SASGPG will do, and what he or she will not do, and by complementing the activities of other institutional actors within the UN, such clarity could be one way to build important intra-UN confidence.

Another consideration is whether the SASGPG should take on operational responsibilities, such as actively seeking to facilitate mediation between actors in a particular situation. This could be useful if the SASGPG would hold comparative advantage to do so. However, as the SASGPG is unlikely to constitute the main interlocutor of the international community, the SASGPG should rather seek to offer complementary services and activities. This could include arranging in-country or regional workshops aimed at fostering inter-communal tolerance where expressions of hate speech have been directed at certain populations at risk. The SASGPG can also (with authority) share the experiences of the significant human and economic costs when inter-communal tensions elsewhere have turned into organized violence. The SASGPG could seek to strengthen the core of moderates on all sides and support them (and encourage them to also involve others) to address contentious issues through inclusive political processes, as opposed to violent means. As the SASGPG is to work without excessive publicity, this approach will also serve the function of enabling political space for disputing parties, including governments, to adjust policies and positions without being seen as doing so (i.e. not losing face within respective constituencies). Once identified with such an approach, this could encourage States who for (arguably) uninformed reasons may be initially hesitant to extend a standing invitation to the SASGPG.


Considering the clearly insufficient 40 per cent position of the SASGPG supported by just two staff members, it is hard to imagine a larger discrepancy between resources allocated and the importance of the issues at stake. While secondments from governments can be sensitive, and the first SASGPG appears to prefer †کstarting small,’ although it could well be considered to enlarge the capacity of the office through contributions from experts nominated by governments or independently recruited professional staff.

In light of the current meager resources of the SASGPG office, the indirect support of Non-Governmental Organizations becomes all the more important. Collaboration between NGOs could provide independent assessments within their field of expertise to the SASGPG’s office (which the SASGPG obviously would decide whether to act upon or not). It would, for example, appear warranted if well-reputed organizations such as Minority Rights Group International, with its 40 years of expertise on inter-communal issues and minority protection around the world, were to establish links and synthesize and analyze information from sources (mentioned below) and cooperate with the SASGPG in an informal, yet supportive capacity.

Information, Analysis and Actions

The office of the SASGPG can act as a focal point for early warning information coming from any source inside or outside the United Nations system. The use of indicators is a necessary, but not sufficient, basis for evaluating situations at risk. Indicators would need to be complemented with contextual analysis of State capacity, governance, media and current and future events. The information management would need to develop a methodology drawing on past experiences (incl. from The Early Warning and Preventive Measures project initiated by the Executive Office of the Secretary-General in 1998) and include indicator-based systems such as from the SIPRI Armed Conflict Database, non-indicator based analysis from the International Crisis Group, and research-based sources of information such as the Minorities at Risk project at the University of Maryland, and the Human Security Index at the University of British Columbia.[8] This being said, extensive UN information could well provide the bedrock of information. Indeed it is likely that the SASGPG will be simply overwhelmed. An effective system of information management and communication strategy is thus essential. It will be important to strike an appropriate balance between quantity of information and its quality in accuracy and reliability.

On Sept. 30, 2004 the SASGPG stated that, “the vulnerability of certain ethnic groups” and “the instability of the situation generally” are such that “we have not turned the corner on preventing genocide from happening in the future or even in the near future in Darfur.”

In stressing that the primary responsibility rests on national governments, the SASGPG should base his or her analysis and recommendations on a normative framework, conveying (and explaining) existing international standards. The function of a †کnormative intermediary’ translating standards into concrete policy options could draw upon the proven function of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities. [9] In this regard, the SASGPG may offer his or her own interpretation of such standards, including specific cases or through general recommendations, and thus contribute to a body of †کsoft jurisprudence.’

It requires strategic planning to determine whether, when and how the SASGPG will inform the Secretary-General, including the appropriateness of f bringing a situation to the attention of the Security Council, and there are similar questions with regard to other possibly †کindependent’ tools of action at the SASGPG’s disposal (including fact-finding missions for verifications and consultations). Should the SASGPG commence with the most urgent cases? In order to build trust in the mandate and approach, it could be useful to focus on multiple situations simultaneously, and seek to establish some early †کsuccess,’ however small. This might mean the most urgent situation, but it could also mean engaging in a dialogue with member States and populations where tensions are far less acute. In order to develop the †کroutine’ of in-country visits, it could be helpful if a few †کfriendly governments’ extend invitations to the SASGPG, who could for example hold in-country consultations on, for example, issues such as education, culture and language.

Actions to Date

The first SASGPG has not been serving in this position for enough time to merit a deep analysis. By April 2005, the SASGPG reported he had issued five notes to the UN Security Council on Darfur, one note on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and one note on Cote d’Ivoire.[10] The notes have addressed a variety of issues, for example the letter regarding DRC focused on the need to establish protection zones for civilians especially in the east of the DRC and near the borders with Burundi and Rwanda. However, so far it is uncertain what, if any, effect these notes have had on the actual situations.


While 2004 saw international events and gatherings commemorating the 10 years since the genocide in Rwanda, the international community remains unable to effectively address the tragedy in Darfur, which is merely the latest situation labeled by the UN as ethnic cleansing, and by some quarters, genocide.

The establishment of a SASGPG should be welcomed as a new actor in the range of instruments which could assist in developing effective genocide prevention capacity within the UN. Both governments and non-governmental actors should support this new mechanism; the former by offering resources and inviting the SASGPG for in-country visits, and the latter by providing systematic independent analysis on situations that merit the attention and engagement of the SASGPG.

Erik Friberg, a Swedish national, is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia . He can be reached at [email protected]

Further readings:

Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict. Final Report with Executive Summary, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1997,

Malone, D., and Fen Hampson (eds.), From Reaction to Conflict Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System. Lynne Rienner, 2002.

Packer, J. and E. Friberg, Genocide and Minorities: Preventing the Preventable, Minority Rights Group International Briefing, London, 2004,

Stanton, G. H., The International Campaign to End Genocide: A Review of Its First Five Years, 2004, see http://www.genocidewatch.org/iceghistory.htm

Schabas, W., The Genocide Convention at Fifty, USIP Special Report 41, Washington , 1999,

The Report of the independent inquiry into the action of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, 15 December 1999.

[2] For a good account of the early warning and preventive action in the wider context of institutional transformation of the United Nations (prior to the 2004 High-Level Panel Report), see J. Cockell, “Early warning analysis and policy planning in UN preventive actionâ€, in D. Carment and A. Schnabel (eds.) Conflict Prevention: Path to Peace of Grand Illusion?, United Nations University Press, Tokyo, 2003. See also C. L. Sriram and K. Wermester, From Promise to Practice: Strengthening UN Capacities for the Prevention of Violent Conflict, International Peace Academy, New York, 2003,

[3] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, UN. Doc. E/CN.4/1994/7/Add.1.

[4] UN Secretary-General Speech at the Stockholm International Forum January 2004, and speech at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva April 2004. Other suggested parts of the Action Plan, including a treaty-monitoring Committee to the 1948 Genocide Convention, remain to be implemented.

[5] Outline of the mandate for the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, UN Doc. No. S/2004/567.

[6] Albion Monitor, †کUN Genocide Advisor Says Darfur Getting Worse’, 9 March 2005, .

[7] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948.

[8] For a useful gathering and analysis of potential databases in this regard, see Rodik, Petra, Drazen Penzar and Armano Srbljinovoc “An Overview of Databases of Conflicts and Political Crisesâ€, in Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, Volume 1, Issue 1-2, 2003, pp. 9-21.

[9] See S. Ratner, “Does International Law Matter in Preventing Ethnic Conflict,†New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, 32(3): 591-698. See also: J. Packer, “Making International Law Matter in Preventing Ethnic Conflict,†New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, 32(3): 715-724; and W. Kemp (ed.) Quiet Diplomacy in Action: The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Kluwer Law, The Hague , 2001.

[10] UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Press Release 1 March 2005,

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