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Keynote examines genocide in UN work

| Sunday, March 29, 2015

Students and faculty who attended this year’s Notre Dame Student Peace Conference, an annual, student-run event, gathered Friday in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium to hear the keynote address from Gillian Kitley, the senior officer in the United Nations (UN) Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

Kitley said despite receiving increased support from the international community in recent years, the UN still faces considerable challenges in attempting to prevent and prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Why is it that we still face so many situations where so many people’s lives are put at risk?” she asked the audience. “Why is there still so much suffering for so many populations around the world? And what more can we do now to improve the situation, to improve the international community’s ability and will to respond more quickly and more effectively when we see the risks?”

Kitley said she first became interested in these questions during her early years growing up in the African Great Lakes region, which includes Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The region has a long history of violent conflict, she said.

Since joining the UN in 1993, Kitley said she has witnessed significant changes in the field of peacekeeping and conflict resolution, including the creation of her current office in 2004. Kofi Annan created the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect as the Secretary General of the UN at the time, and during the 2005 World Summit, all UN member states pledged to defend their populations against genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Unfortunately, she said, the UN continues to meet the resistance of many countries who are viewed as particularly at-risk for genocide.

“Preventing atrocities is difficult and demanding, and even if we have limitless enthusiasm, consensus and resources, it would still likely prove impossible to prevent every atrocity,” she said.  “So we have to be realistic.

“We have to accept that there are limits to the influence that outsiders can wield.”

Kitley said a further complication of the issue is that many states view UN peacekeeping efforts as a threat to their political authority.

“States are never going to be enthusiastic about endorsing limits on their sovereignty,” she said.

But state noncooperation is not the only challenge encountered by UN officials. Kitley said limited funds and resources, difficulties in achieving justice in the aftermath of violence and the participation in conflicts of non-state actors — such as armed militant groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and multinational corporations — all present obstacles to the success of UN initiatives.

Dealing with non-state actors is particularly difficult, she said, because they refuse to engage with the UN and often have superior resources and technology.

“Non-state actors like the so-called ISIS present new challenges,” Kitley said. “These are groups that are intent on holding territory rather than carrying out guerilla attacks. They have no interest in negotiating with us, they have no interest in international law, they run a sophisticated media recruitment campaign — very media savvy, much more than we are.”

Nevertheless, Kitley said it is important to maintain hope, because she said, “for all these challenges, there are solutions.”

“We have a growing international community which is committed to tackling these problems,” she said.

Kitley said among the efforts made by the international community to combat genocide and violent conflict is the research being done by academic institutions such as Notre Dame into the sources of violence and effective methods of conflict resolution.

“We really appreciate the effort that goes into this research, and I know that this University is one of the universities that has been doing some really important work,” she said.

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