The UN’s New “Code of Conduct” for Acting in the Face of Mass Atrocities

On October 23, the UN celebrated its 70th anniversary by launching an important new initiative that will support timely and decisive action by the UN Security Council to respond to mass atrocities. So far, 104 UN Member States have joined this crucial effort, which goes by the abridged moniker, the Code of Conduct.

Those joining this effort pledged to support timely and decisive action by the Security Council aimed at preventing or ending the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. They also pledged not to vote against credible draft Security Council resolutions seeking to end such crimes and invited the Secretary-General to make full use of early warning capacities involving such crimes.

The Code of Conduct — sponsored by a collection of states known as the ACT group for their work to improve the accountability, coherence, and transparency of the Security Council — is complementary to a French-Mexican initiative calling on the permanent members of the Security Council not to use their veto power to block resolutions in the face of mass atrocity crimes. The importance of both efforts is underscored by China and Russia’s recent blockage of four Security Council resolutions related to atrocities in Syria, including one that would have referred the situation for prosecution to the International Criminal Court. Such political vetoes do more than just shield perpetrators within the Assad regime and the Islamic State from prosecution; they harm the legitimacy of both the Security Council and the UN system. 

Since it was unveiled last month, many states have made strong statements supporting the Code, and lamented the international community’s all too often inaction in the face of mass atrocities. They hailed the initiative as an important step in making the pledge of “Never Again” a reality, and implementing what has already been agreed upon in the UN’s 2005 World Summit Declaration on the responsibility of states to protect their populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Despite the volume of international support for the measure, the United States has failed to join the Code or the French-Mexican initiative despite making a strong statement during the October 1 meeting where the Code was first presented. If the US has any legitimate reasons for not joining this seemingly merit-worthy endeavor, it did not present them at the meeting, despite an open challenge from the United Kingdom to do so. It is hard to imagine the US having a national interest that would benefit for allowing mass atrocity crimes to occur or continue.

“Decisive action” of course does not necessarily mean “military action” as there are many important steps that can be taken to deter atrocity crimes prior to military intervention; the term “action” however would not necessarily preclude forceful intervention, which could include, for instance, the establishment of “no fly zones” or protective civilian corridors. Any such endeavors would of course also need to comply with all of the requirements of international law, including international humanitarian law.

On the 70th anniversary of a UN founded on the heels of World War II’s horrors, on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, and on the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the US — along with all other relevant UN Member States — must join both important initiatives.

There is no reason that the US should have any interest in vetoing a credible resolution that complies with the requirements of international law, and is aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. When the US fails to join these types of initiatives, it squanders moral capital, and fails to take up an appropriate leadership role in acting against the perpetrators of mass atrocities crimes. 

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Trahan

Associate Clinical Professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, Chair of the American Branch of the International Law Association’s International Criminal Court Committee