After UN resolution on impunity, more work to be done

For all the people who have been working on the problem of impunity for so long, the announcement on November 26 that the Third Committee of the United Nation’s General Assembly had passed a resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, setting November 2 as the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists,” was welcome news. 

Impunity remains the number one concern for the over 80 members of IFEX committed to the promotion and defense of free expression around the world. And why wouldn’t it be? On a daily basis they monitor, report, campaign, advocate and bear witness to case after of case of journalists, media workers, artists, writers, and others who are threatened, forced into exile and sometimes killed for exercising their right to free expression, while the perpetrators go free. IFEX is the hub where groups report the stories and share the grim statistics while seeking international attention and support for cases crying out for justice.

This we know. It’s the act–the crime–that draws the world’s attention. The fact that the criminals are still free is not generally considered front-page news. But in this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss. We ignore this at our peril, because, whether it is threats, attacks, or murders, and whether the crimes are perpetrated by individuals, religious groups, crime syndicates or the government, it is the very fact that these crimes are not solved that sustains and strengthens the conditions that permit such attacks in the first place.

Standing by while journalists and other free expression advocates are being silenced, sending funeral wreaths, and having family members terrorized was just not an option. Five years ago the IFEX network sent a resounding message saying “Enough!” and dedicated time and resources to create an International Day to End Impunity. We planned the campaign to raise awareness and outrage, to inspire a global response and find concrete ways to support those fighting impunity. It culminated each year on November 23, the anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre, when 58 persons in the Philippines were brutally murdered, including 32 journalists and media workers, in the single most horrific act of killing journalists ever.

Just days before the U.N. vote, many IFEX members scrambled to reach out to their country delegates and encouraged them to support the resolution. It is clear those efforts helped. The vote demonstrated that these governments acknowledge a problem exists, and that the safety of journalists to do their work in the public interest needs to be protected.  

But we also know there is no such thing as absolutes in victory. Not all delegates voted in favor of the resolution; that fact alone a strong indication of the work still to be done.

The question, now, is how to build on this success to effectively turn a culture of impunity into one that will not tolerate it.

We hope the creation of this U.N. day means more than an agreement in principle, and that the U.N. is willing to put teeth into the resolution, to use existing laws and work in partnership with civil society to ensure that those who resort to violence to shut down those with dissenting views will no longer take comfort in the fact they can do so with impunity.

Progress will rely on the execution of the actions proposed in the U.N. Plan of Action on the safety of journalists. Strengthening UN mechanisms, cooperating with member states to implement existing laws and to develop legislation and mechanisms guaranteeing freedom of expression, partnering with other organizations and institutions in raising awareness of the issues, will all be of critical importance if we are to make a dent in impunity.

Having the U.N. support an international day on the theme of impunity will add heft and credibility to our cause. I can envisage two important dates bracketing a world of actions and initiatives targeting impunity each year: November 2 as a rallying point to launch IFEX’s annual campaign to end impunity, and November 23 as the campaign’s end, in recognition of that emblematic day when so many voices were silenced forever.

Enough is enough. It’s time to bring the culture of impunity to an end. We must attack the roots that sustain it. We must challenge the legal frameworks that allow it and the powers that encourage or turn a blind eye to it in the name of political expediency. While the problem we are tackling may at times feel overwhelming, the strength, commitment, and sheer numbers of those who are uniting to fight impunity are increasing with each year.