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On May 7, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed a group of ASIL leaders and supporters over lunch at Tillar House, the Society’s headquarters. The Secretary-General spoke about the importance of international law as the foundation of the rule of law and took questions following his remarks.
Remarks at lunch hosted by the American Society of International Law (ASIL)
Thank you, former President [David] Caron for that kind introduction.
And thank you to the organizers, today, for hosting this wonderful gathering.
I had intended to participate in your annual meeting in March.
Unfortunately, it was held just as the Arab League convened its first summit in two years.
At such a critical time for the Arab world, I went to Baghdad with a message:
I told the region’s leaders to listen to their people. And I pledged the UN’s support on the road to democracy.
You were very understanding and invited me to send a video message.
I can tell you this: it is much better to be here in person!
I am looking forward to our discussion – but let me say first that I am not a lawyer. You will certainly know far more about the history and theory of some of the legal concepts that I will discuss.
So, please: consider this a great opportunity for me to learn from you.
Let me begin with a statement of the obvious: everything that the UN does is firmly grounded in law.
When I took my oath of office as UN Secretary-General, I placed my hand on the UN Charter.
It opens with a pledge to establish conditions for justice and respect for international law.
The law underpins all three pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, development and human rights.
Respect for the rule of law is what gives a child his birth certificate … a widow her equality before the courts … a worker her protections … and an accused a fair trial.
Calls for the rule of law inspired many of the democracy protests that changed our world over the past year.
Citizens continue risking their lives to demand justice.
They want an end to corruption. They want laws to apply equally. They are sick of kleptocracy.
This cry for justice is universal and unstoppable.
We saw it answered in Tunisia, Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire and Libya.
I am proud that, in a number of cases, the United Nations helped the will of the people to prevail.
But precisely because we have been helping countries through transitions, we know that the road ahead is long and hard.
Overthrowing one order does not establish the next.
Ideals and expectations can quickly sour into cynicism and recriminations.
That is why it is critical to consolidate progress.
I am very concerned about a number of situations where the rule of law is fragile or failing.
In my position as Secretary-General, I am constantly on the phone with leaders trying to calm tensions. Day and night I receive reports from my peacekeeping operations about disturbing signs of violence. And I have to anticipate how shifts in power today will affect alliances and hotspots tomorrow.
I am concerned about fighting on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. I am worried about Mali, where fighting could reverberate across the region. And I am especially disturbed by the blood that continues to spill in Syria.
My distinguished predecessor, Kofi Annan, is the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the Arab League. Thanks to his efforts, the international community has rallied behind the six-point plan to seek a political solution to the crisis, and has sent UN observers to Syria. Our immediate goal is a cessation of armed violence in all forms by all sides.
This is not meant to freeze the situation on the ground, but to create conditions for a genuine, inclusive political process that will address the concerns and democratic aspirations of all Syrians.
We also need a just peace and a political settlement. The Syrian people deserve their fundamental freedoms, including the rights to assemble peacefully and freely determine their own destiny. They also need immediate humanitarian assistance, which the United Nations is ready to deliver as soon as we get access.
Let me say clearly: this is a difficult mission at a difficult moment. We know the security risks to our brave, exposed, unarmed observers. We know that Syrian citizens could face punishment for talking to the mission. We know the nature of the regime, which could well use the presence of the mission to ready itself to carry out further violence.
But we know, too, that we have to put all our efforts and commitment into this endeavour. The international community, especially countries with influence, must stay united behind this effort. Mr. Annan has done a remarkable job and has my complete support. I call on the Syrian Government to uphold its responsibilities under the six-point plan -- fully, with no more delays.
The alternative -- a full-scale civil war with regional consequences -- would be much worse. Those who undermine our mission will bear the responsibility -- and will be held accountable by the international community. This is my strong and stern message to the Syrian authorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In Syria and elsewhere, the United Nations is addressing challenges the same way a good lawyer would approach a case: carefully, systematically, and using all of our best tools.
Our newest tool is the Responsibility to Protect.
If someone hears their neighbour beating a child, they have a responsibility to intervene. It would be immoral and unacceptable to simply stand by knowing that child was being abused.
R2P gives expression to a growing, global conviction that it is immoral and unacceptable for States to commit or allow serious international crimes against their people. It holds the international community responsible for preventing and addressing these crimes.
Last year, R2P went through the reality test — and passed.
The results were not perfect, but tens of thousands of lives were saved in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, in Yemen and Libya.
We took action in support of the solemn promise that was made over the graves of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
We pledged to do more when faced with acts or threats of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Protecting civilians from these atrocity crimes is a defining purpose of the United Nations in the twenty-first century.
I visited a site of mass killings in Libya. I was deeply shaken. You could smell the corpses – somebody’s father, somebody’s friend, killed for a dictator.
It was a chilling reminder of what more could have happened if we did not live up to our Responsibility to Protect.
Accountability lies first with States.
But if States are unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute atrocity crimes, the world must step in.
Governments may blatantly disregard their responsibilities – but the international community will not.
Not so long ago, if you killed one person, you were punished. If you killed thousands, however, you went free.
The United Nations helped create the International Criminal Court to remedy that.
The ICC is at the heart of our efforts to end impunity. The Court is our chance and our means to advance justice, reduce suffering and prevent international crimes.
While the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, it does support and cooperate with the Court.
International justice is proving its power.
Less than two weeks ago, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was found guilty for his crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
This was a victory for all of the children who were turned into soldiers … all the women who were raped and mutilated … all the people who were killed … all those who suffered from the actions of groups that Mr. Taylor supported.
And it was a victory for everyone who demands justice.
The case against Charles Taylor showed that executive mansions built on blood and theft are no protection against the law.
He was not the first head of State to commit international crimes in office. And I am convinced he will not be the last to pay for his acts.
This is not only my prediction – it is my warning to leaders, especially those in Syria, who commit or direct atrocity crimes.
At the same time, I hope we can move from retribution to reconciliation … and from punishment to prevention.
That is why it is so important to establish the rule of law and to respect it.
The United Nations is on the frontlines of this work in 150 countries around the world. We are training police and improving governance. We are promoting equal access to justice. We are fighting against corruption and for human rights.
This year, the General Assembly will hold the first-ever summit on the rule of law. One of our goals is to mobilize partners, including bar associations and other legal experts, who can advance this cause.
I come here with my hand extended. I invite you to the United Nations. Help us in the lead-up to this high-level meeting. Contribute your ideas. Challenge us to do better. And carry forward this process after September so that we can intensify our global campaign to deliver justice.
Ladies and gentlemen,
When I think of what a difference the United Nations can make, I think of a boy from Uganda who got caught up in the war there.
His name is Alfred Orono. He was twelve years old when he first held a gun -- not even a teenager. Eventually he had to flee, but he was captured and thrown into prison. He nearly died from hunger and disease. Finally, he escaped.
He walked 50 miles, bleeding from cuts and hiding from rebels, until he got to Kenya.
The he saw something that gave him hope.
It was the blue flag of the United Nations.
He had reached a UN refugee camp. He started working there. He got a scholarship. He studied law.
Now he works for us. The former child soldier is a prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
After what he has seen in life, Alfred Orono concluded, and I quote: “We are all capable of the most monstrous things … but we are also capable of the most glorious and selfless actions.”
Let us continue using the power of the law to fight the monstrous … and to uphold the selfless and the glorious … in everything we do.
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