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The UK and Atrocity Prevention

Fresh Perspectives

Professor Jason Ralph discusses the United Kingdom's strategy for atrocity prevention.

In April 2014, I published with UNA-UK the report Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in UK Strategy.  Despite the UK’s commitment to R2P it was difficult to identify the use of a distinct ‘atrocity prevention lens’ in the early warning and policy response mechanisms across Whitehall.  The Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS), the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (JACS) all signaled a commitment to improve cross-government coordination, and indeed we reported a sense of progress in that respect.  The main criticism in the report, however, focused on the definition of stability as the absence of armed conflict.

Two problems stood out in the normative context created by the UK’s commitment to R2P.

Firstly, it is the case that armed conflicts often provide the context for the kinds of atrocities that concern states when considering their responsibility to protect.  But that is not always the case as the UN finding of crimes against humanity in North Korea indicated.  Moreover, a focus on preventing conflict in general does not distinguish those conflicts where there is a particular risk that violence will be directed at civilians and thereby trigger specific responsibilities to protect.

Secondly, the fallback position for deciding government priorities when demand outstripped resource was a narrow (i.e. security and commercially driven) conception of the national interest.  The UK, like any other government, needs to act in the national interest, but that concept is indeterminate and open to interpretation.  Given the UK’s interest in maintaining its reputation as a responsible permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is reasonable to argue that the UK has a national interest in prioritizing atrocity prevention.

A number of anomalies illustrated these points.  Firstly, the 2014 Guidelines for the JACS analysis emphasized the principles informing upstream prevention, in particular the work of the Stabilisation Unit, and stated the importance of alignment with cross government strategies, but they did not include atrocity prevention in this.  Analysts were directed to ask questions about the actors involved in specific unstable situations. The guidelines suggested asking ‘what are incentives and disincentives (towards peace or conflict?); what are actor’s peace agenda and peace building capacities? Are they willing and able to negotiate?’ To mainstream atrocity prevention in UK strategy, we recommended that analysts also ask about the actor’s propensity to commit such crimes.  Evidence of a higher propensity should push the situation up the UK government’s priority list.

Secondly, despite profound concern about the situation in the Central African Republic at the time – it consistently appeared at the top of atrocity risk registers – it did not appear as a priority for UK Strategy.  In that instance, the UK did assist the French who took a lead in responding to that particular crisis, which pointed to the possibility of a coordinated approach among the EU members on the Security Council.  Nonetheless, the general criticism in the report stood.  The lack of a distinct atrocity prevention lens in UK Strategy exposed the government to criticism in light of its commitment to R2P.

Since that report was published, and thanks to the tireless efforts of civil society groups, the UK government has begun to focus in detail on what its R2P commitment entails.  Key to this were the results of two inquiries by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: a December 2017 report on the violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar; and a September 2018 report on the R2P and Humanitarian Intervention.  Based on these insights, the Committee called for the Government ‘to act urgently to produce a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan to ensure it moves beyond words and towards concrete actions’.  In a speech to the Policy Exchange on the 31 October 2018 the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt committed the government to such a strategy.

While Government was unable to produce a draft strategy for consultation by the Committee’s deadline of April 2019, civil society groups did welcome the July 2019 policy paper from FCO Minister Lord Ahmad, in which he outlined ways in which the UK sought to prevent atrocity.  He specifically identified the JACS as ‘a particularly useful tool’, which helps ‘the government to identify situation-specific interventions that are most likely to prevent conflict, build stability and prevent atrocities’ (Emphasis added).

This statement now means the most recent JACS guidelines (2017) should be updated because it still does not ask analysts to identify the specific threat of atrocity.  As in 2014, the most recent guidelines direct analysts ‘to link analytical findings with key relevant thematic areas of government policy, such as Women, Peace and Security, Organised Crime, and Counter-terrorism’, but not atrocity prevention.  A footnote adds that ‘other areas of policy interest … should be taken into account as relevant UK government priorities and stances develop. These may include migration and peacebuilding, among others.’ It again does not specify atrocity prevention.

The need here then is not to drop the analytical focus on conflict and stability but to be more conscious of which conflicts contain a particular risk of atrocity.  This would bring JACS into line with new government commitment to atrocity prevention.

It also the case, as Protection Approaches points out, that there is general alignment between the recipients of CSSF funding and situations which, according to ANU’s Atrocity Forecasting Project, risk triggering specific R2P concerns.  Yet research I recently conducted with Eglantine Staunton on EU aid and the genocide in Myanmar again reveals the added value of applying an atrocity prevention lens to assess the effectiveness of that aid.

The Foreign Affairs Committee rightly concluded that in that situation ‘there was too much focus by the UK and others on supporting the ‘democratic transition’ and not enough on atrocity prevention’. But we also found that when the situation was seen through a conflict prevention lens it led to anomalous behavior.  For instance, internationally sponsored conflict prevention work focused on the armed conflict of Kachin, Kayan and Shan but not Rakhine state where the threat of genocide was high.  Moreover, in 2015 ceasefire agreements and national elections created a sense of progress, and a relaxation of the pressure on Myanmar at the UN. This was unwarranted and would not have been the case had the situation been viewed through an atrocity prevention lens.

As a new government looks to redefine the UK’s role post-Brexit, there is both an opportunity to make good on its recent commitments to atrocity prevention by fully and explicitly integrating these concerns into the JACS process and CSSF programme.  Doing so would reduce the chance of missing future opportunities to prevent atrocity and better align Whitehall priorities to the UK’s special responsibilities at the UN.

Professor Jason Ralph, University of Leeds, UK


Title image: "British Flag" by scoobyk9 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

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