Photo Source: ©️ Valentin Flauraud/Keystone/AP
Photo Source: ©️ Valentin Flauraud/Keystone/AP

Letter to UN Human Rights Council members on atrocity prevention priorities at the Council’s 52nd session

21 February 2023

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, I am writing to you regarding the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.

The HRC plays an essential role in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes by responding to situations where populations are at risk of, or are experiencing, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. During its 44th session in July 2020 the HRC adopted Resolution 44/14 on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), recognizing the important contribution of the UN human rights system in addressing situations where there is a risk of atrocity crimes being committed. This is in line with the Council’s prevention mandate, enshrined in General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which stipulates that it shall “contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.”

As a current member of the HRC we strongly urge you to uphold this shared commitment to prevent atrocity crimes. The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to consider the following recommendations as you engage in the 52nd regular session:


Under the guise of combating religious extremism and terrorism, the Chinese government has increased its persecution of members of the ethnic Uyghur community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since 2017. Over 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities. In August 2022 then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a long-awaited report on XUAR, which determined that the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and others may constitute crimes against humanity. The report found that the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue, including probable forced labor. The Chinese government also appears to be intentionally perpetrating at least four acts prohibited under Article II of the Genocide Convention, including with its coordinated campaign to forcibly reduce Uyghur births via forced sterilizations, forced abortions and mandatory birth control.

At the 51st session of the HRC, a coalition of states introduced a resolution that called for a debate on the former High Commissioner’s report. Although the resolution was rejected by a narrow margin, it demonstrated the willingness of many UN member states to discuss its findings in a formal setting and underscored the important role that the HRC can and should play in responding to the atrocity situation in XUAR. In a watershed ruling on 24 November the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a series of recommendations on XUAR and referred the situation to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on R2P, marking the first time the Committee has referred a situation to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P. We respectfully encourage you to introduce and support a resolution which seeks to hold a formal debate on the former High Commissioner’s report. A debate would be an opportune forum for all governments — including China’s —to discuss the report and its findings, as well as identify steps the international community should take to prevent further crimes against humanity and hold perpetrators to account.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

In 2014 the HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) found evidence of and established responsibility at the highest level of government for crimes against humanity perpetrated within DPRK, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, sexual violence and persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, as well as enforced disappearances. In her first report to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in October 2022, the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Elizabeth Salmón, warned that enforced disappearances continue and expressed concern about ongoing crimes against humanity committed by the DPRK government. She also stressed the need for the UN and member states to take decisive action to advance truth and justice for serious human rights violations, including crimes against humanity.

Despite the DPRK government’s refusal to cooperate with or grant access to the mandate-holder, the Special Rapporteur remains the only international actor that consistently reports on ongoing and systematic human rights violations and abuses in the DPRK. The Global Centre therefore respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and support the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution by “stressing that the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has the primary responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity.”


Violence and instability have been endemic in Mali for over a decade; however, since 2015 the crisis has shifted into inter-communal conflict and an insurgency by armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Populations in central and northern Mali are facing escalating atrocities and indiscriminate violence as a result of intensifying attacks by such groups. According to a January 2023 report by the UN Secretary-General, “The attacks carried out against civilians by terrorist groups, the battle for influence among them and the violent activities conducted by community militias remain a chilling daily reality.” In central Mali, civilian populations, particularly the ethnic Fulani community, are also facing increasing violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), including killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances. Most of these violations are perpetrated during counterterrorism operations conducted by the Malian armed forces, as well as allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group and, at times, traditional hunters called “Dozos,” who come mainly from the ethnic Dogon community. On 31 January a group of Special Procedures called for an immediate investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Malian armed forces and Wagner personnel.

Impunity for past atrocities has enabled ongoing violence and allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses. In this regard, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, who works closely with the peacekeeping mission in Mali and other UN bodies, has played a crucial role in calling upon the Malian transitional authorities to promote and protect human rights, as well as monitoring implementation of these commitments. The Global Centre therefore respectfully encourages you to extend the mandate of the Independent Expert on Mali and support the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution by “stressing that the Transitional Government of Mali has the primary responsibility to protect its population.” We also respectfully encourage you to call on the Independent Expert to conduct risk assessments on structural risk factors for atrocity crimes, particularly the lack of accountability and restrictions on civic space. We further encourage you to authorize the Independent Expert to regularly brief other UN bodies, including the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Myanmar (Burma)

In February 2021 Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw — launched a coup, overthrowing the civilian-led government and plunging the country into a grave human rights and protection crisis. In the two years since the coup, the military has killed over 2,800 people, and over 13,600 people remain detained for resisting the junta. The Tatmadaw has launched airstrikes in civilian areas and used scorched earth campaigns with the aim of quelling dissent and invoking terror throughout the country. Several UN officials and entities, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, have indicated that abuses committed by the military since the coup likely amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Impunity for past atrocities has enabled the military to continue committing widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against civilians, particularly those from ethnic minority populations.

The Special Rapporteur has produced valuable reports on several issues, including arms transfers to the Tatmadaw and human rights violations against children in Myanmar. The Special Rapporteur plays a critical role in documenting systematic violations of IHL and IHRL in Myanmar, contributing to efforts to ensure perpetrators are held accountable, as well as consistently pushing the international community to take robust and effective action towards the crisis. Therefore, we respectfully encourage you to actively support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and support the inclusion of language in the resolution which stresses that “the government of Myanmar has the primary responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity and war crimes.” We also respectfully encourage you to ensure that the Special Rapporteur has sufficient resources to carry out his mandate and respond to the deteriorating crisis in Myanmar.

South Sudan

Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its 11.5 years of independence. Between December 2013 and April 2018 an estimated 400,000 people were killed as government forces and armed opposition groups perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both sides have been accused of targeting civilians along ethnic lines and committing extrajudicial killings, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, child recruitment and large-scale destruction of civilian property.

Despite some positive steps regarding the implementation of the 2018 peace agreement, progress on key human rights issues remains limited and atrocity crimes continue. In February 2022 the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) warned of increased political violence and polarization and asserted that sub-national violence remains pervasive. The CHRSS elaborated on the risk and prevention of atrocity crimes in their Conference Paper 46/CRRP.2, warning that, “the absence of functional state and governance structures at sub-national levels, a national climate of social, political and economic instability, together with entrenched impunity for serious violations represent a toxic mix with potential for further conflagration that will be difficult to reverse unless immediate, deliberate and concrete mitigating steps are taken by the Government and other responsible actors.” In March 2022 Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the CHRSS, warned that nearly all 14 of the UN’s risk factors for atrocity crimes are present in South Sudan.

The CHRSS has played a critical role in documenting ongoing violations and abuses of human rights and violations of IHL. Due to the fragility of the peace process and the multiple extensions of the transitional period, as well as the ongoing risk of atrocity crimes, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the CHRSS in full for a period of two years to allow it to continue to conduct independent investigations and to collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify responsibility for, alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes. In addition, the resolution should mandate the CHRSS to submit comprehensive reports to the UNGA at its 78th and 79th sessions, to be followed by interactive dialogues. This is in line with a joint NGO appeal from 13 February.


Since 2011 the Syrian government has continuously perpetrated acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own population, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects and deploying cluster munitions, barrel bombs and chemical weapons in heavily populated civilian areas. The Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the Syrian Arab Republic has consistently reported on the government’s failure to comply with its obligations under IHL and IHRL. Armed groups have also perpetrated likely war crimes and crimes against humanity throughout the country. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated 306,887 civilian deaths from 1 March 2011 to 31 March 2021.

The CoI has also reported more than 130,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances since 2011, with the majority attributable to the Syrian government. The CoI has asserted that the Syrian government is intentionally prolonging the suffering of hundreds of thousands of families of those forcibly disappeared by withholding information on their fate. In June 2022 the CoI also recommended the creation of a dedicated institution with an international mandate to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people, identify human remains and provide support to their families. The UN Secretary-General similarly recommended in August 2022 that the UNGA establish an independent international mechanism dedicated to clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing persons in Syria, as well as supporting victims, survivors and their families.

The CoI has played a crucial role in the documentation of atrocity crimes in Syria and has meaningfully contributed to the pursuit of justice and accountability. As such, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew its mandate in full. Support should be extended to facilitate the CoI’s ability to regularly brief other UN bodies, as well as to strengthen its cooperation with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria to preserve evidence of crimes for future criminal prosecutions. The Global Centre further encourages you to extend your support during the session for a dedicated UN institution established by the UNGA to determine the fate of the missing in Syria.


Since March 2015 all parties to the conflict in Yemen have perpetrated violations and abuses of international law that may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual and gender-based violence. More than 19,200 civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led international coalition alone, including over 2,300 children. During October 2021 the HRC abruptly terminated the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE). Hostilities dramatically escalated as missiles and airstrikes targeted and destroyed civilian objects and critical infrastructure, including water reservoirs, hospitals and telecommunications towers, across multiple governorates. Over 1,100 civilians were killed or maimed between January and March 2022 before a negotiated truce was reached on 2 April.

Since the truce expired in October, serious human rights violations remain rampant. Additionally, there are no viable paths to address widespread violations and abuses of international law or accountability for previous atrocities. The Global Centre therefore respectfully urges you to actively work towards establishing a new international independent accountability mechanism for the situation in Yemen, mandated to collect and preserve evidence of violations of international law, prepare files for criminal proceedings in accordance with international legal standards, identify victims and document harms for possible future reparation claims.


On 24 February 2022 the Russian Federation unlawfully launched a military operation into Ukraine that quickly devolved into a countrywide assault on Ukrainian civilians. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has verified at least 7,110 civilian deaths, including 433 children, since the invasion, while acknowledging that the actual death toll is much higher. Both the HRMMU and the CoI on Ukraine have documented evidence of the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict, including indiscriminate attacks, torture and sexual and gender-based violence, the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons (heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions) in populated areas. According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian and Russian forces have committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment. In areas under their control, Russian forces have also perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes. Mass graves and burial sites have been found in several areas retaken from Russian forces. There have also been reports of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and forcible disappearances of local Ukrainian government officials.

Despite multiple attempts by the UN and others to mediate an end to the conflict, peace remains elusive. On 18 January the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned, “I do not see an end of the war [in Ukraine] in the immediate future.” As the war progresses, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you adopt a resolution that condemns, in the strongest terms, Russia’s blatant disregard for IHL and IHRL, as well as renews the CoI to continue its documentation, reporting and investigative capacities.

Interactive Dialogues on country-situations at risk of, or experiencing, atrocity crimes   

During its 52nd session, the HRC will have an opportunity to discuss numerous other atrocity situations. We respectfully urge your delegation to actively participate in the interactive dialogues with the High Commissioner and the Designated Expert on Sudan, the Special Rapporteurs on Afghanistan and Iran and with the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, the Fact-Finding Missions on Venezuela and Libya, and on the High Commissioner’s report on the Occupied Palestinian Territory. We also urge you to participate in the Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on human rights in Eritrea and on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the High-level dialogue on the Central African Republic. During the General Debate under Item 4, we respectfully urge your delegation to note that possible atrocity crimes are also currently being committed in Cameroon, the Central Sahel, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Mozambique, and Nigeria, and that the international community must do more to uphold its collective responsibility to protect.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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