The UK needs to prioritise mass atrocity prevention

Georgiana Epure argues that the next UK government needs to live up to its global responsibilities on preventing mass atrocities.

When mass atrocity crises erupt, the human, economic, social and security costs to the country and the international community are enormous. We see this in places like Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan and in the subsequent refugee flows, regional and international destabilisation and the rise of terrorism - to name just a few of the effects of humanitarian crises on Britain. In a world where traditional leaders in mass atrocity prevention, such as the US, plan to cut assistance for developing countries, put a very narrow version of the national interest first and insulate themselves from their global responsibilities, the UK’s role in protecting populations from gross human rights violations is ever more important.

The rhetoric about keeping or making Britain global is misleading. Britain is and has been global for a very long time. Being global is one of the perks and curses that come with having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s sole body in charge of maintaining international peace and security. It is in the nature of Britain’s worldwide historical ties, its values and its genuinely international network of diplomatic power. When it comes to preventing or responding to mass atrocity crises, whether Britain stands on the sidelines or takes an active stance is both a political and moral choice that will have global effects. The challenge is not to keep Britain global, but to keep it responsible.

Britain post Brexit

Britain’s vote to exit the EU, its increasing nationalist and populist rhetoric, its new status as a political outsider of the continental decision-making apparatus, its failure to protect refugees arriving in Europe by taking its fair share and its failure to rebuild Libya after NATO’s intervention in 2011, run the risk of being interpreted as the UK turning its back on the world and its global responsibilities. Prioritising the prevention of mass atrocities is the UK’s opportunity to counter this narrative and an important way of keeping its European allies, especially Germany and France, close.

Twelve years ago, Britain committed to the Responsibility to Protect(R2P) populations, not just citizens, from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, at home and abroad – through supportive operations, such as state capacity-building or peacekeeping assistance when states are unable to protect their populations, or through coercive means, such as economic sanctions or military intervention, when states ‘manifestly fail’ to protect their populations from the four crimes.

Since 2005, when world governments unanimously endorsed R2P, the UK has been a major advocate for R2P, rhetorically and practically. It even internalised and reaffirmed its commitment in its 2015-2025 security and defence strategy. The next government can and should prioritise mass atrocity prevention by upholding the R2P principle.

However, as a recent Protection Approaches report shows, the only party that explicitly commits to uphold R2P in its manifesto is the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party has taken a more anti-interventionist stance than in 2015 and the Conservative’s manifesto remains silent on conflict and atrocity prevention. The Lib Dems are also the only ones who mention protective military action in cases of mass atrocities.

Undertaking coercive action should always be a last resort, very well calculated and long-term planned measure. However, as Alison McGovern MP and Tom Tugendhat MP write in ‘The Cost of Doing Nothing’ (a paper that was meant to be co-written by Jo Cox, the late Labour MP), fear of not carefully planning interventions has made Britain hesitant to act at all. The idea that Britain “can opt out of fundamental challenges facing … vast swathes of people suffering in an ever-more connected world” is an illusion. Whether it’s agenda setting, stopping or tacitly endorsing the death of thousands of civilians in places such as Yemen (where the UK sells weapons in support of Saudi Arabia), Britain’s decisions, to act or not act, have colossal effects.

Prioritising mass atrocities should be a matter that transcends party politics. The onus should be on prevention, but that does not exclude firm reaction to ongoing crises. Whether this is by maintaining the 0.7% GNI allocated to international development aid, setting the agenda in the UN Security Council or raising the standards of R2P implementation in a way that is sensitive to the local culture and gives agency and local ownership to the communities where Britain operates its capacity-building and peacebuilding programmes - it is in the interest and capacity and part ofthe moral and political international responsibilities of the UK government to make mass atrocity prevention a prime concern.

*Georgiana Epure [2016] is doing an MPhil in International Relations and Editor-in-Chief of The Responsibility to Protect Student Journal. Picture credit: Syrian refugees c/o Wikipedia.