By Fred Carver
An amendment to the trade bill regarding genocide was defeated on the 19 January in the House of Commons. The vote was tight: 319-308. This was one of the largest rebellions in recent parliamentary history, pushing a government with a majority of 80 far closer than many thought possible. It also brought a wave of energy into the conversation on atrocity prevention in the UK, and support from such improbable quarters as Ian Duncan Smith.
Now we need to channel that energy and utilise the opportunity last week’s debate created. The government got a scare and the mood on the Conservative backbenches is clearly restless. The amendment may return again from the House of Lords in altered form, but regardless of its ultimate fate the discussion has made clear that it is past time for the UK to adopt a clear and public national strategy on atrocity prevention.
For the past few years a civil society coalition, the UK Working Group on Atrocity Prevention, have been pushing for the government to adopt this idea, championed by the late Jo Cox during her year in parliament and subsequently backed by members of various parties and by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Such a strategy would enhance the government’s ability to act proactively and preventatively by creating and resourcing what is currently missing: an analytical unit to properly orient state policy where there is a risk of atrocities occurring.
Such a unit could make use of the various early warning systems that already exist and, crucially, establish new tools trained on the risks and causes of international crimes like genocide, and so help to identify where atrocities might take place. This would allow the government to act sooner, during the window where there is still a chance of saving lives.
A strategy would make sure that atrocity prevention isn’t simply a set of phrases the government reaches for when grave situations enter the national political conversation, such as in the case of Xinjiang, but informs responses to atrocities less in the political eye such as those being committed in Cameroon (as Emily Thornberry did so rightly raise in parliament) or Yemen. It could also help to trigger action where there is significant ongoing risk of atrocities, as there is in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Ethiopia, or in those countries where the risks are present but less visible.
A national strategy on atrocity prevention would ensure this work was integrated throughout government; across trade policy, regulation of the financial sector, justice, education and immigration to name but a few areas. This would avoid the disgusting situation we have currently where one part of the British state is seeking to prevent atrocities while other parts are actively complicit in them: whether it’s by selling bombs to Saudi Arabia and tear gas to Venezuela, by allowing dirty money to flow through London, or by deporting torture victims to face further abuse.
Another thing a unit could do is that which the trade bill amendment sought to do: make determinations that a genocide is taking place. It is just wrong to say that only a court can do that, as the government does to excuse its own inaction. The United States made such a determination on Xinjiang the very day of the trade bill debate via their own purely political mechanism, requiring no legal process.
Granted a political statement that a genocide is taking place is not the same as a legal finding that it has occurred – but it has the potential to be more transformative as it can be made in a more timely fashion. Furthermore, the direct legal consequences of any form of genocide determination are actually very limited – their value is largely in giving survivors acknowledgement of the truth of what has occurred. What causes a determination to have an impact on the wider world is meaningful political follow through, which can take any form and trigger the government chooses, but requires a strategy for implementation.
The Government has acknowledged “that the creation of FCDO provides an opportunity to enhance our impact on conflict resolution and atrocity prevention through the integration of our diplomatic and development levers”. We don’t yet know if or how this opportunity will be fulfilled.
Earlier this month the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that “it would frankly be absurd for any Government to wait for the human rights situation in a country to reach the level of genocide... Any responsible Government would have acted well before then”. Of course, he is right, but why then did the government not act in response to a clear risk of imminent genocide on several recent occasions, notably in Myanmar and the Central African Republic? If the UK is not unwilling to act it must be unable - and so it must be given the ability it lacks.
This week sees Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion which never fails to move me as we consider the enormity of the atrocities our species is capable of, and the bravery and determination of those who are adamant that we can be better. It is also a time when many will mouth platitudes about “never again” despite having little intention either of preventing future atrocities or even of ending their complicity in current ones. Perhaps this year will be different: if parliamentarians truly want to pay homage to victims of the holocaust and subsequent atrocities they must make meaningful and substantive commitments to ensure the UK will behave differently in the future when faced with genocide or crimes against humanity. This requires an atrocity prevention strategy.
Fred Carver is a freelance consultant with over a decade's experience of working on atrocity prevention. He was previously the Campaign Director for the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice and the Head of Policy for the United Nations Association - UK (UNA-UK). Current clients include UNA-UK and Protection Approaches, but he writes this in a personal capacity. A Labour supporter since 2015, and a recent member, he sits on the Labour Foreign Policy Group's United Nations Working Group. He tweets @RightsSaidFred