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Libya, Côte d’Ivoire Events Mark Historic Precedent, Secretary-General Tells Sofia Platform, Citing ‘Watershed’ in Responsibility to Protect Doctrine

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Following is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s address to the Sofia Platform, 6 May:

Thank you very much for your kind introduction and warm welcome. Thank you, also, for your leadership and vision in organizing this very important gathering. I am very much honoured to be among you — leaders, great thinkers, activists from Europe and around the world.

Twenty years ago, when revolution swept Eastern Europe, I was a career diplomat, stationed in Washington. But my heart was in Prague, Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw and Sofia, cheering you from afar.

I remember how powerful my emotions were, for in a small way this was my story as well. As a university student, long ago, I was one of tens of thousands of students who went into the streets, shouting for greater freedom, liberty and democracy. I believe I was one of many small seeds, planted in those days that grew to allow Koreans to realize the democracy and economic prosperity that they enjoy today.

I relived these emotions watching the great changes in the Arab world. In recent weeks, I have visited the region — Tunisia, Egypt several times and elsewhere. All was in flux. What once was down is up, what was up is down.

Everywhere, I found the euphoria of the new, the enthusiasm of fresh possibility. “Welcome to a new Egypt,” I was told in Cairo — not once, but again and again. In Tunis, it was the same: “Welcome to a free Tunisia,” people said. Everyone spoke the new language of democracy, openness, freedom and human rights. I went to listen, to hear the new voices that emerged with these once-in-a-generation events. But more, I went to show solidarity and offer a helping hand.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt represent one of the greatest opportunities to advance democracy and human rights in a generation. Yet we all know: success cannot be assumed. It will require the strong support of the entire international community.

That is why you are here. Rightly, you are looking for ways to apply the lessons learned from the European experience, in 1989, to the here and now. You have experience and good advice to offer: how to build democracy, how to enhance good governance, how to support civil society, dismantle a police State and create rule of law.

Yet, despite all the hopeful similarities, let us also remember the differences. For one, the revolutions of 20 years ago were more or less assured a happy ending. There was a more or less certain destination – a “return to Europe” for nations long cut off behind the “Iron Curtain”. Within 11 months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany joined the Federal Republic, with immediate benefits. Other nations could look forward to joining the European Union, some sooner, some later, but all with high expectations of social and economic advancement. Meanwhile, foreign investment flowed in.

A second important difference: the revolutions of 1989 were more or less “velvet”. They were largely free of bloodshed. None of this is so with the Arab revolutions. No guardian angels hover in the wings. The ultimate destination is far from clear. The possibilities are far more open, even dangerous. Look at Bahrain, Yemen, Syria. Rather than negotiating, rather than listening to their people’s legitimate aspirations for change, these Governments are responding with force.

Just before coming to Sofia, I spoke with President [Bashar] al-Assad of Syria. This was my third call to him, and a lengthy one. We were arguing. “Why do you keep calling me?” he said. I told him that, as Secretary-General, I do not interfere with internal politics. But when it comes to fundamental human rights, when there is a clear violation of those rights, I will speak out. Stop the violence now, I told him. I advised him, strongly, to do what I have advised all other leaders in the region: listen to your people, really listen to what they are asking. Hear their aspirations. Make bold reforms. Change before it is too late.

In Libya, the situation is worse. Yet, in response, the international community has been united, and not only united, but swift, very bold and very decisive. Not at any time in the past, in fact, have we seen such decisiveness in common purpose. And in taking this strong stand, we have stood against the shadow of the past.

In Rwanda, so many years ago, United Nations peacekeepers were on the ground. We had ample warning of what was to happen. And yet we did not act. The peacekeepers were constrained by too narrow a mandate; and so 800,000 innocent people perished.

In Bosnia, during the war, we also had peacekeepers. We created “safe havens”. How the gods must laugh at that phrase, in the aftermath of Srebrenica, where thousands of people were murdered.

Today we have learned a lesson, I believe. World leaders have resolved that never again would there be another Rwanda, another Srebrenica. Today we are acting.

In Libya, Security Council resolutions 1970 (2011) and 1973 (2011) authorize us to take “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from harm. That is why NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is enforcing a no-fly zone, and why military operations are targeting heavy weaponry that the Libyan Government has used to lay siege to cities.

We are working for a political solution. My Special Envoy has travelled to Libya six times in recent weeks, to Tripoli and to Benghazi, and meeting all sides. But these political efforts underscore a basic truth: the Libyan people must be free to determine their future. That is the only lasting path to peace.

We are being tested elsewhere, as well. Late last year, the incumbent President of Côte d’Ivoire was defeated in fair elections then refused to step down. He defied repeated calls from the international community — the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the United Nations Security Council itself. He exploited ethnic tensions to retain power, imported mercenaries and used heavy weapons on civilians. One million people have been displaced, a thriving economy was brought to a standstill.

Throughout, the international community stood firm on principle: that in a democracy, people have the right to choose their leaders. Last month, the man who broke this democratic trust was finally ousted. A duly elected new President has taken office, determined to bring peace, promote reconciliation, rebuild his country and restore normal life.

We cannot call this victory. Too many people have died; too much damage has been done. Yet, let me emphasize nonetheless, this was a milestone. The international community stood firm on a fundamental principle and it did not back down.

What is happening in Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere is a historic precedent, a watershed in the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Never again, world leaders resolved in 2005 after the tragedies in Rwanda and Srebrenica. They enunciated this new doctrine: the responsibility to protect.

Today, the age of impunity is dead. Today, we are moving decisively towards a new age of sovereignty as responsibility, an era where those who commit crimes against humanity and violate the human rights of their people will be held accountable. More broadly, we can expect that in the future the Security Council will increasingly place civilian protection at the centre of the UN’s peace and security agenda.

Let me be clear on another point, as well: at no time has the United Nations exceeded its Security Council mandates. In Côte d’Ivoire, UN forces undertook a limited military operation whose sole purpose was to protect innocent people. The only targets of armed action were the heavy weapons used by the former regime to attack civilians and our own headquarters and peacekeepers. We are observing the same discipline, and the same principles, in Libya.

I understand that not everyone may agree on these issues. Even some of my own advisers have come to me, in recent months, telling me that the United Nations should always be “neutral”. This is wrong, I say. It is a mistaken understanding of the UN’s responsibilities and obligations under the Charter. Yes, it is true: the United Nations should be impartial. But neutral — how can the UN be neutral in the face of gross violations of human rights? How can the UN stay silent, not act, in the face of basic challenges to its core values? In these matters, the United Nations must be strong. It must be firm, unyielding, in defence of our most fundamental principles.

Let me close by quoting [former] President [Zhelyu] Zhelev, who could not be here today: Without the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he has said, the 1989 “Velvet Revolutions” would never have been.

These principles embodied the promise of social progress, a higher standard of living through individual choice and free enterprise, and, most importantly, justice, dignity and freedom under the rule of law.

So it is today, in a different time and place. It is up to us to help. It is up to us to stand with the region’s people. That is why we are here, together, in Sofia. To show solidarity. To offer a hand to those in need. To stand for fundamental principles — all in the name of our common humanity.

For information media • not an official record