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‘Preventing future mass atrocities’: Why the UK needs an atrocity prevention strategy

Fresh Perspectives

Dr Blake Lawrinson reflects on the publication of the UK House of Commons International Development Committee’s Inquiry on preventing future mass atrocities and the need for a UK atrocity prevention strategy.


As of 18 October 2022, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect identifies nineteen countries either experiencing or at risk of mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing), which shows the scale of the challenge facing all levels of the international community in preventing these crimes.

On 17 October 2022, the UK House of Commons International Development Committee published its ground-breaking report From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow: Preventing future mass atrocities around the world which draws on extensive written and oral evidence to re-emphasise the calls from civil society and academics for the UK government to establish an atrocity prevention strategy. This forms the heart of the Committee’s comprehensive list of recommendations and reflections on ‘learning from the past’.

In submitting written evidence, I argued that atrocity prevention should be at the core of the UK government’s commitment to acting as a ‘force for good’ as outlined in its 2021 Integrated Review of Foreign, Security, Defence, and Development policy. Whilst the idea of being a ‘force for good’ is not new in UK foreign policy, it does raise a broader point on how the UK connects its ‘values’ and ‘interests’ in domestic and foreign policy.

The UK, for example, has committed to a range of human protection norms, approaches, and initiatives in the past two decades, including the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the Protection of Civilians (PoC), Women Peace and Security (WPS), the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), and atrocity prevention. However, the government’s understanding of the overlaps and differences between these is at times unclear and disconnected.

In an article on the PSVI, for example, I argue that the UK has been able to demonstrate its considerable leadership on normative initiatives aimed at protecting populations from mass atrocities. As a ‘norm entrepreneur’, the UK was able to strategically establish and promote the PSVI to a global audience which translated an idea into tangible actions. However, I equally argue that essential to driving such momentum is a combination of clear strategic focus, institutional resources and support (particularly staff and funding), and leadership, which presents important lessons for present and future strategies for preventing mass atrocities.

It is the emphasis on strategy which is at the core of the Committee’s own focus on atrocity prevention. One of the essential points here, however, is that such a strategy must be cross-government which means being fundamentally interconnected across its many departments from foreign, defence and development policy to ‘trade, supply chains, arms exports, education, asylum and border policy’. The Committee’s case for this cross-government strategy is a persuasive one:

“A new cross-departmental strategy to prevent mass atrocities offers opportunities. It can drive greater coherence between existing policy initiatives on human protection. As the UK will not always be able to prevent mass atrocities, a strategy can also clarify the metrics by which the UK will measure the success of its efforts.” (p.19)

As mentioned earlier, the UK has committed to a range of human protection norms, approaches, and initiatives, but the core connection between these is difficult to disentangle when each has its own policy, strategy, and teams responsible for their implementation. A clear atrocity prevention strategy is thus a core way of drawing clear connections between these policies on human protection and promoting the necessary coherence for policymakers working on atrocity prevention.

It has been widely documented in academic and policy debates, and by the UK government itself, that atrocity prevention is part of its broader commitment to conflict prevention. However, whilst there may be some overlap between conflict and atrocity prevention, there is a clear risk in conflating the two. As the Committee report suggests:

‘Armed conflict and mass atrocities are linked, but overfocusing on conflict is likely to miss atrocity risks, to leave groups unprotected and to ignore how atrocities themselves can drive conflict. In addition to conflict prevention, the Government must explicitly recognise the separate but interlinked priority of atrocity prevention.’ (p.25)

This is an important challenge to the idea that atrocity prevention is already being implemented as part of a broader conflict prevention strategy, and that whilst connected in some instances, they are not the same as underlined by the fact that mass atrocities can occur outside of armed conflict.

What is critical, however, is the focus on prevention. Atrocity prevention represents a shift away from focusing on the direct use of coercive force towards the identification and prevention of human rights violations and atrocities before they occur, and thus in essence, prevent the international community from resorting to the use of force in the first place (although fully acknowledging that preventing mass atrocities may in some instances mean using force).

The UK government has taken some important steps which highlight the strengths of an atrocity prevention strategy, including its 2019 policy paper on atrocity prevention, as well as its new Office for Conflict, Stabilisation and Mediation (OCSM). However, as the report notes, this will also require ‘allocating appropriate funds and staff to meet the scale of the UK’s ambitions’. This is one essential way in which the UK government can learn from its leadership on the PSVI which initially received significant resources and support (particularly between 2012 and 2015), but lacked a fundamental strategy directing its policy in the short, medium, and longer term to continue building on its initial powerful domestic and international momentum.

That ‘the government appears open to a new strategy’ has the potential to be a catalyst for how it strategizes atrocity prevention in its domestic and foreign policies in a way which connects its departments and wide-ranging commitments to other human commitments as part of a coherent strategy to ultimately prevent mass atrocity crimes.

Dr Blake Lawrinson is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the University of Leeds. As an early career researcher, he has published articles in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations on UK norm entrepreneurship on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and Global Responsibility to Protect on the interaction between the Responsibility to Protect, Protection of Civilians, and counterterrorism in Mali (with Adrian Gallagher and Charles T. Hunt).


Image credit: Photo by James Giddins on Unsplash.


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