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Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Remarks, Atrocities Prevention Conference
Holocaust Museum, Washington, DC, October 28, 1999

Blue Bar rule
Thank you, Madame Commissioner [Mary Robinson] for that exceptional tour of the horizon, and also a review, not just in the field of atrocities prevention and response, but of the issues on the human rights agenda, more broadly writ. Let me spend my time before the break attempting to assess where we are at this point and introduce the working process that we convened this conference to try to undertake. We have heard remarks from Commissioner Robinson and Ambassador Holbrooke that have framed the broader issues that face us in addressing the task of conceptualizing and implementing the strategies of atrocities prevention. They have focused on the need to acknowledge and denounce evil, the need for non-neutrality in the face of atrocities, the need to mobilize resources and to empower existing institutions, and the need to build a culture of atrocities prevention by focusing on development, accountability, capacity building, and human rights education. We have also heard a useful discussion of the draft statement of principles, a discussion that we will continue throughout the conference.

So let me use my time at the podium to try to set the stage for the three policy panels that will follow this afternoon. In this context, I'm going to try to do three things:

  • First, to set our discussion in a historical context, namely, to ask, how does the atrocities prevention issue fit into the broader human rights agenda?
  • Second, to turn to some of the theoretical questions on which we need to focus.
  • Third, to identify particular practical questions that I hope our panels this afternoon will address.
In doing this I wear two hats. First, wearing my hat as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I now come face to face with these kinds of horrors on an almost daily basis. Just last week in Sierra Leone I stood before children whose hands I could not shake because they had been hacked off with machetes. Only 2 weeks earlier I had visited West Timor, where I met with some of the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese crowded into camps and fearing for their lives from militias acting in collaboration with elements in the Indonesian military. And then I traveled to East Timor where I saw the bitter fruit of the brutal scorched earth policy. Only a month before that, in the streets of Pristina, I met with Kosovar Albanians who described their own experiences of Serb ethnic cleansing.

At the same time I wear the hat of the academic, someone who has spent 2 years teaching in the area of international law and international human rights. As an academic, I think there is a need to put together our practical understandings with our historical understandings. This century has been referred to as the best of times and the worst of times, as the German ambassador said. It has been a century of atrocities, but also a century of human rights, a century of shattered lives but also of building institutions. And the question is, how should we understand our task ahead?

Let me just sketch a history of the period following World War II because I think it is relevant to understanding where we go from here. I think we can suggest the idea of human rights, or the paradigm of human rights, has evolved through four distinct phases, each of which has had a distinctive substantive focus and a remedial accomplishment.

In the first phase, in the wake of the Holocaust, the paradigmatic human rights violation was Genocide. So the focus of global human rights policy was principally standard-setting, through the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to a lesser extent accountability, seen through the Tokyo and Nuremberg Tribunals. The remedial accomplishment, which preceded the Cold War, was the beginning of the universalization of human rights norms. And this universalization process has carried forward very effectively, so that now these norms have won acceptance around the globe and have been formalized in a range of additional instruments that have been globally ratified. This first phase was also a period of institution-building, with the development of a network of intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations.

The deepening of the Cold War marked the second phase of the human rights paradigm, in which it became clear that collective action through the multilateral process would not bring an end to atrocities, and therefore the human rights agenda shifted its focus from wholesale to retail. Political dissidents and prisoners of conscience became the central point of concern. Human rights monitoring and advocacy came to the fore as the primary mechanism, and we saw non-governmental organizations becoming key actors. The irony here is that intergovernmental institutions that had begun to develop remained weak and underfunded. But they were supported by non-governmental organizations that worked together to form what political scientists liked to call a regime, an institution that involves norms, rules, and decision making-factors.

The third phase can be traced to the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of the paradigmatic forces of stability released the forces of ethnic and religious conflict, which then led to a renewal of genocide in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda, accompanied by massive refugee outflows. In this phase, the primary accomplishment was not universalization of norms or institutionalization, but rather some understanding of the operationalization of human rights activity. In other words, through transnational networks, this regime began to function, and a division of labor between non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and national governments began to emerge. A key factor in this third phase, the phase of operationalization, was the role of powerful individuals, including people like Vaclav Havel, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, so-called "transnational norm entrepreneurs," who have been able to mobilize these networks and the mass media.

In this post-Cold War phase, the development of mechanisms of accountability has focused attention on the past. We've heard about war crimes tribunals, criminal and civil accountability in domestic courts, and renewed efforts to document abuses and bring perpetrators to justice through truth and reconciliation commissions and the like. We have also seen improved mechanisms for human rights strategies in the present; better strategies for bilateral and multilateral engagement with human rights violators. But the area in which the mechanisms have been weak is in regard to the future: heading off atrocities before they occur.

This, then, is where we stand at the end of the millennium, at the start of the fourth phase, one in which all features of the three earlier phases remain present: genocide, prisoners of conscience and ethnic conflict; norm universalization, institutionalization, and operationalization. The question is, how can all of prior developments be steered towards the new project, the future: preventive diplomacy, sanctions, diplomacy backed by force, and humanitarian intervention? How can we work more effectively to halt atrocities before they occur?

It seems to me that we have seen two very powerful, recent examples of this question: Kosovo and East Timor. They are, in a sense, two paradigmatic examples of the new, fourth phase. In each case, we witnessed an outbreak of atrocities where we may have had earlier warnings but lacked the political will or resources to respond immediately. As the atrocities erupted we saw two high water marks; first, a massive humanitarian crisis caused by refugee outflows, and second, a wide-scale revelation of atrocities. And then finally, the news and information about the atrocities and humanitarian response jointly helped to motivate the political will to create a political and military response, designed initially to deal with these two issues: refugee outflows on one hand and massive atrocities on the other.

As the water level dropped, the basic issues of human rights began again to reemerge: human rights monitoring, accountability, and so on.

So given that we know how it is that these complex emergencies are likely to unfold, are there ways at both the theoretical and practical levels that we can address these questions more quickly in advance? Let me just suggest first four theoretical questions that we can address for the rest of this session, then three practical issues that we can consider. In saying this, as an academic, I should note that I have now gained--slowly and painfully--believe me, it has been painful, a much deeper appreciation of just how difficult and complex it is to institutionalize and operationalize norms through bureaucratic structures. It was easy, when I was an academic, to stand on the outside, to critique the system, and to talk about what the "world community" should do. But having now seen up close how hard it is to get even one bureaucracy--the State Department--to do anything, I have come to realize just how difficult it is to create and foster successful structures and interventions across scores of national governments, in a world where every problem is complex and urgent, where resources are always scarce, and where information is never perfect.

On a theoretical level, we need to focus on four kinds of issues: commitments of principle, commitments of resources, commitments of policy, and theoretical understandings.

Our first and most important step should be to establish an international commitment, or a series of international commitments, that will treat atrocities prevention as a discrete and identifiable issue. This is obviously the first step in creating a culture of prevention that people are talking about: building a culture of prevention by making rhetorical commitments to prevention, stating that prevention itself as a principle is worth fighting for. And there, I think we reached a watershed this year at the UN General Assembly, where on consecutive days we heard speeches from Secretary Annan, who discussed both the culture of prevention and the age of prevention, and by President Clinton, who reaffirmed that commitment. President Clinton urged that we must do more "to stop outbreaks of mass killing and displacement." Acknowledging that "our response in every case cannot or should not be the same," he suggested that "sometimes collective military force is both appropriate and feasible. Sometimes concerted economic and political pressure, combined with diplomacy is a better answer, as it was in making possible the introduction of forces to East Timor." He also noted that "simply because we have different interests in different parts of the world does not mean we can be indifferent to the destruction of innocents in any part of the world."

That sentiment was echoed again just last week in Nigeria by Secretary of State Albright. She reiterated the U.S. Government's commitment to continue to contribute to regional peacekeeping and conflict prevention efforts in Africa, and linked our efforts there with those in Kosovo and East Timor.

This leads to the next point: commitments of resources. On this point, I think the U.S. Government has made substantial commitments to conflict prevention. We have discussed Kosovo and East Timor. In Africa, we are the largest contributor to the OAU's Conflict Management Center. We have supported ECOMOG, providing well over $100 million this decade. We have allocated an additional $11 million in logistical support for Nigeria's mission in Sierra Leone.

I also think, as you heard this morning from Ambassador Holbrooke, that commitments of policy have now followed. That the notion of realpolitik is the only guide to U.S. foreign policy has largely been rejected, except in the pages of a few OP-ED pieces. The choice between idealism and realism is a false one, for the protection of human rights is inextricably bound up with strategic interests.

The fourth set of issues to be addressed is theoretical: Do we understand the background conditions that may lead to atrocities? And here I think we now have a wealth of academic research on the subject, particularly in the work of the Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, which Mary Robinson mentioned, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and other NGOs, many of which are represented here today.

Given that we have these basic bedrock elements for a culture of prevention, commitments with regard to principles, commitments to approach the resource question, commitments to policy, and the beginnings of theoretical understanding, how do we address the more practical question of how to engage in atrocities prevention? Let me identify three sets of practical issues, which, not coincidentally, are the same three questions that structure the three panels that follow.

The first issue is the identification and the sharing of information. If we have a theoretical understanding of which facts are important and can discern that atrocities are likely to occur, how do we then identify those facts, share information, and alert policy makers so that the information is known fully--using all mechanisms of information, both governmental and nongovernmental? In particular, how can we take maximum advantage of the kinds of electronic and Internet capacities that simply did not exist in earlier periods? Here is where we would ask that the panelists on the first panel think about the preconditions to massive human rights violations, the essential elements of a network that can gather this information and bring it to the attention of policy makers, and the role, that media, public information, and public diplomacy play. In short, the question of how to structure an information network that carries out this early warning system is the practical issue that we hope will occupy our panel number one.

The second issue concerns short-term, rapid response, which can be put in terms of "overcoming inertia." How is it that we can translate the information that we possess into institutional action? Here we can look at a number of different models. We would like our second panel to focus on the short-term measures that can be used to halt a widespread pattern of atrocities. Is diplomacy enough? Are economic sanctions enough? Are calls for accountability enough? At what point are calls for the use of force appropriate and indeed, necessary? Again, based on past experiences, what has worked and what has failed, what specific communication and coordination problems need to be addressed? And is there indeed some kind of emerging consensus about when intervention is appropriate? It seems to me we should focus not just on the high profile cases here, but we should also look at the role of regional organizations such as the OSCE, which have played an important role in early warning conflict prevention.

The OSCE, for example, now has established numerous small-scale monitoring missions to some fifty-four member countries that do important crisis management and mediation work. Both their Office of Conflict Prevention in Vienna and their Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw have developed strategies which could perhaps be applied in other areas. And at the same time, it seems to me we should focus on what we know to be the emergencies or crises that have been averted. Commissioner Robinson just mentioned how hard it is to prove a negative, the atrocities that did not occur. But let's take for example the OSCE's role in Estonia, when by sponsoring a number of local open forums on minority rights in 1993 and 1994, Estonians and Russians were brought together in a way that very likely diffused the explosive potential for conflict. Or the role of coordination between the United States, the UN, and the OAS in Guatemala to create and mount effective human rights field missions to strengthen civilian control of the military and to help negotiate and end conflicts involving massive human rights abuses. Or a third case study might be the Africa Crisis Response Initiative, which has now trained more than 4,000 peacekeepers in six countries, some of whom we reviewed last week in Africa, to try to prevent the deadly conflicts that have been surging though the African region.

The third issue I think we need to address on the practical side is the question of reconstruction. Once we get past the short-term crisis, once the water level starts to drop, how can we help to rebuild shattered institutions in a way that will prevent crises from recurring? How can we promote the rule of law and civil society, and what long-term measures ought we to be using?

Here obviously, both Kosovo and East Timor are prime cases that we ought to be addressing in panel number three. Techniques of reconciliation must successfully arbitrate the tension between the need for justice and the need for peace, which I think we see most graphically today in Sierra Leone. This requires a critical discussion of the pitfalls that have been encountered in the past and ought to be avoided in the future.

Let me plant one final seed before the break. And that is, in my judgement, the issue is not that we need a new institution. We have plenty of institutions with which to address the question of atrocities prevention. But what we do not have is a regime, an atrocities prevention regime. In other words, a good analogy would be an engine where the parts are there, indeed the wires are there, but the electricity is not flowing and therefore the engine is not running. The question is, how do we put together the pieces of what we have: media networks, electronic networks, inter-governmental organizations, group meetings, etc., to get the electricity flowing, because it is to a certain extent self-perpetuating. The creation and the running of the engine generates the kind of public support that bring the resources to keep the engine going.

In talking about how to develop such a future-oriented atrocities prevention regime for this fourth phase of the human rights era, we need to focus on the pieces that would serve as catalysts for overcoming inertia. Because we do not yet have an atrocities prevention regime, although we have many disconnected institutions, we are still victims of ad hoc-ery and re-inventing the wheel every time one of these issues come up.

So the seed I would like to plant is that we may consider whether this meeting ought to be used to develop what could be called loosely a Human Action Rights Group, or a Human Rights Action Network. It could be sustained through regular meetings, perhaps in some of the countries that are here today. For example, all of us are impressed by the detail and comprehensiveness of the Swedish Action Plan. Perhaps the next conference ought to be there, so we may discuss these questions. Or it might well be that meeting are not necessary because in this day and age these kinds of contacts or action groups can be maintained through e-mail networks or other kinds of electronic information sharing. The idea is not to create a new layer of bureaucracy, or become a new institution, but to create a standing, informal network that can focus explicitly on the atrocities prevention question and to address three tasks.

  • First: monitoring. Governments that are especially concerned about these questions should establish a mechanism through which they can be approached. A process of continually sharing information at a lower level, paralleled by periodic meetings on priority problems at a higher level, could provide an early warning of emerging challenges. Through their own monitoring and by studying the reports of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, governments participating in these exchanges would be able to complement each other's efforts.

  • Second: coalition-building and strategy-building. The group could provide a ready-made coalition of interested governments who are committed to atrocities prevention and who can plan and coordinate both the implementation of medium and long term strategies. We are going to be talking about this in panels two and three. We need to ensure that governments and non-governmental actors are doing the right things in the short-term. At the same time, we need to ensure that the actions that governments may take to get by in a crisis are also the steps that, over the long term, will be the most helpful in building democracy and the rule of law.

  • Third: generating emergency responses. We need a group that would be available in the case of a new crisis to execute pre-established understanding or protocols and to give the particular mechanisms we've been discussing here some meaning. Perhaps this group would operate in the areas which Commissioner Robinson addressed--the Great Lakes or the Former Yugoslavia.
In short, and in closing, I would like to say that it is my hope that this is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the best means of preventing atrocities. Indeed, we may not ever be able to quell the basest and most brutal impulses of the human soul, yet if what we do is focus on these questions in a systematic way, we may be able to remember the end of this millennium as the dawning of both a culture of prevention and the beginning of an atrocities prevention regime. The emergence of such a regime will be marked as the beginning of a new and distinct phase in human rights.

[end of document]

Blue Bar rule

Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor | Policy Remarks
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