The United Nations faces an existential crisis. The norms that bind and ‘safeguard humanity’ are currently under threat. The deliberate bombing of hospitals and the indiscriminate killing of civilians has become almost routine in Syria and several other conflicts. Numerous governments and murderous non-state actors (like isis or Boko Haram) are defying international humanitarian and human rights law. This article argues that the solution to the current global exigency and a central challenge facing the next Secretary-General is to achieve an equilibrium shift away from crisis response and towards conflict prevention. This is especially true with regard to preventing mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing). Historically, no single issue has done more to tarnish the reputation of the un than the failure to halt atrocities. Under a committed Secretary-General, the un has unique capacity to prevent these crimes.
The failure of the international community to adequately respond to patterns of discrimination against the ethnic Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) eventually led to a genocide. The so-called “clearance operations” launched by Myanmar’s military in August 2017 tested the resilience of the international community’s commitment to defending human rights and upholding its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Two years later the UN Security Council has still not adopted a single resolution to name the crime committed against the Rohingya, or to hold the perpetrators accountable. Nevertheless, Rohingya survivors and international civil society have continued to campaign for justice under international law, and to advocate for targeted sanctions to be imposed on those responsible for atrocities. Faced with an inert Security Council, some UN member states have adopted inventive diplomatic measures to uphold their responsibility to protect.