On January 31st, 2024, Professor John Packer delivered the Center’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day Lecture, titled “Remembering, Learning, and Applying ‘Never Again’ as the Essential Lesson of the Holocaust.” In this interview, Professor Packer discusses the UN’s human rights and genocide prevention approach, the role of NGOs in peace mediation, and preliminary measures in the context of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s South Africa v. Israel case.

John Packer is the Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution, Faculty of Law, and Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. Before taking up his position at the University of Ottawa in 2014, John was the Constitutions and Process Design Expert for the UN’s Standby Team of Mediation Experts, advising in numerous peace processes and political transitions around the world, focusing on conflict prevention and resolution, diversity management, constitutional and legal reform, and the protection of human rights including minorities. In a 30-year career, John has contributed to peace processes in over fifty countries and has advised numerous inter-governmental organizations, governments, communities, and other actors.

In your talk yesterday, you spoke about how when you started working at the UN, there was a lack of a mechanism or institution for dealing with human rights issues. Why did it take so long for the UN to adopt a more formal human rights approach?

My impression is that the line of globalization has intensified in a sharp curve up and specifically in my lifetime. Historically, we were hindered by natural frontiers. There aren’t many natural frontiers anymore. We can now communicate across oceans in real-time. Social organizations are bumping up against this integration and these organizations are less and less suitable for it. This is heavily influenced by the preoccupation of those within each state with their own competitive position. Rather than cooperative, the competitive element is predominant. That explains the opposition of states to the deep cooperative operation that is imperative for things like climate change. It is inescapable. 

The same for human rights. Human rights are not as simple as trade, which is transactional. Trade is conceptually easier and much more compelling. We can do a quick calculation and determine if it is a win-win scenario. Human rights involve much more complicated aspects of the human condition: social belonging, cultural attributes, and sentiments. Human rights are not easily tradable. There are certain things I cannot negotiate on with you. If I am a believer in Islam and I will not trade that with you, where do we go from there? Finding a way forward together becomes more complex and has implications for other elements we are trying to protect, like our economic well-being and so forth. It is not surprising that politicians and diplomats will try to stop more integration as a risk reduction and aversion policy.

I’d like to ask specifically about the institutions that work to stop genocide. You mentioned in your talk that the position of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide is finally in existence, but that you are disappointed by the current Advisor. Could you elaborate? What is being done wrong?

The good thing is that they exist so they can therefore be activated. We have had more than a hundred years with an institution that can adjudicate international disputes. And the Genocide Convention has a special provision. States have agreed that if they do have a dispute, it will go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). This means that the chances of implementing a non-violent dispute resolution, and potentially in time [to prevent genocide] is not just an imagined idea but concretely a possibility. That is a different thing than using it, however. 

Unfortunately, until about five years ago, there had only really been three references to the Genocide Convention in the ICJ. It had hardly been used, and that was not because there were no genocides. States were hesitant to contest things with other states and had fears of reciprocal problematic aspects. So it is fascinating that there are now a handful of cases, because we actually have many more cases than are being investigated. Tigray we could talk about, and many other cases. With the way the law works in general, we need the mechanisms to exist and be accepted. But a real key point is the habituation of it. Why do you stop at a stop sign when you drive a car? It’s not because you are worried about getting a penalty. You really stop because you are just used to doing it and you have a major self-interest in doing it. We are creating a global system. The law of international cooperation is evolving.

It is very important to develop confidence in these institutions so that those who do use them do so in a very able and effective way. I helped establish the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The idea was to have some mechanism that could help states be proactive and early in addressing situations with the prospect of genocide. This requires that they use these mechanisms. I find it shocking that the current Special Adviser on Prevention has said little about China and has been silent so far on what is going on in Israel-Palestine. How is it that the dedicated mechanism is silent? If you create a mechanism which is supposed to build confidence, and that mechanism is AWOL at the time of need, that does the opposite of inspiring confidence. These institutions are still pretty fragile. There is an extra weight of responsibility on people in those positions and institutions, and they really must carry that responsibility proactively. 

You mention proactivity and timeliness.  The ICJ has just released preliminary measures and Israel is accused of genocide and a final ruling will take years. Are strategies to avoid human rights violations effective and timely enough?

The provisional measure makes more impact than an ultimate decision. An ultimate decision is by definition ex post facto. So we will have a historical record and point the finger of blame. And what will be very important at that point if there is a finding of a breach of the Genocide Convention is there would be a turn to the question of reparations. But what does it mean to repair? We are talking about things that are by definition irreparable. In this kind of atrocity, you don’t want to get to the commission stage; you want to stop them from happening. The premium was on prevention or at least stopping worse from continuing to happen. We know that the immediate people will be destroyed. Those who are sympathetic will be emboldened to work on their own and will say that international institutions aren’t worth a penny and will find their own means. That is a recipe for war and long war and nasty war. 

I am still favorable towards all of this. The provisional measures have been ordered and rely on the parties to fulfill them. To oversee this brings us to implementation mechanisms and ultimately enforcement. In international law, the Court doesn’t have a sergeant of arms or a police force, so it goes to the [UN] Security Council. That will probably not be effective either, and then it will come back to states. What will be very interesting is what states will do and will be permitted to do in fulfilling the judgment of the Court. And that is a potential Pandora’s box. Because if we have states that are divided willy-nilly in taking steps, the problem could be exacerbated, not reduced. 

I know that you are on the board of numerous NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. Could you briefly explain the importance of the role of NGOs in the peace process and in addressing human rights violations? How do they fit in with the UN and other state-based organizations in the peace process? 

The role of NGOs has grown. There is something called the mediation support network of nongovernmental organizations that specialize in this work. There is a lot of work done in what we call Track 2 and Track 3— so not official mediative processes, but non-official people with influence in society at a local level. For sustainable peace, we need these things to link up. Not only official structures, good law, leadership, and so forth, but you need the people on a local level to live together. NGOs have more latitude, flexibility, often more ingenuity, and more appetite for risk. There are problems for NGOs, however. Problems with funding, recognition, and other things. My basic sense is that the world is facing so many problems that, why should we be against anyone who wants to help? I think it is good to have and I want us to have a more robust NGO system. It is irrepressible. People want solutions and are organizing. I am privileged and honored to sit on some of their boards. 

**Editor’s note: This interview excerpt has been edited for clarity and brevity. Find the complete interview here.

Abby Zumbrunnen is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Political Science and Biology, Society, and Environment.