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Primary responsibility for protecting people rests with states, says UN chief

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that the primary responsibility for protecting people rests with states.

"Indeed, protecting its people is a fundamental part of the exercise of the national sovereignty of a state," the UN chief said at the 99th plenary meeting of the 72nd session of the General Assembly, which was discussing the "responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

"Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement..." said Guterres, citing the document of the World Summit Outcome, a 2005 follow-up summit meeting to the UN 2000 Millennium Summit, which led to the Millennium Declaration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Speaking of civil society, the secretary-general called for "expanding the participation of civil society," which, he said, is also critical in "enhancing early warning and in ensuring the effectiveness of national human rights institutions and ombudspersons."

"I also encourage member states to ratify and domesticate instruments of international law that relate to the prohibition and prevention of the crimes and violations referred to in the Summit Outcome," he said.

Obviously disappointed, the UN chief noted that as of today, 45 member states have still not ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

"In a year when we mark the convention's 70th anniversary, achieving universal ratification would send a welcome signal of resolve," he noted.

"The imperative was clear: do more to protect people, and do so as a united international community," the secretary-general added.

He also called for the international community to "forge mutual understanding and establish stronger support for the responsibility to protect as a key tool of protection and prevention."

Guterres placed high hopes on regional organizations as well, noting that they "have a role to play in helping governments to address the risks and precursors of atrocity crimes."

"The United Nations will continue to support member states, especially those that might be facing fragility and stress, in strengthening institutions, defending human rights and fortifying the cohesion of society," he said.

"Only when peaceful means are inadequate, and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations, may there be a responsibility for collective action," he stressed.

Noting that the world is "witnessing deliberate attacks against civilian and non-military infrastructures, such as hospitals and schools, leading to large-scale civilian casualties," he also called for attention be given to "rampant sexual violence, the denial of life-saving aid, and widespread and systematic targeting of specific ethnic groups, that could amount to acts of genocide."

"All atrocity crimes are preventable and can never be justified," he noted.

"We need to support the efforts of inter-governmental bodies to prevent atrocity crimes, including by making better use of the tools at the disposal of the Security Council such as accountability mechanisms," he added.

At this time of extreme challenges, "we must not abandon the responsibility to protect or leave it in a state of suspended animation, finely articulated in words but breached time and again in practice," the secretary-general noted.

"The credibility of the international community, and above all the lives of millions, rest on us," he concluded.

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