28 February 2018
The government must use a cross-departmental approach, where differing imperatives are aligned, to ensure effective action in situations like eastern Ghouta.
Champa Patel

Dr Champa Patel

Head of Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

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After days of tortuous negotiation, the UN Security Council, of which the UK is a permanent member, finally passed a resolution on Syria calling for a month-long ceasefire. Not long after this news, the ceasefire was broken by the Syrian government.

The failure to act promptly in the face of the indiscriminate bombing and shelling taking place in eastern Ghouta is not just egregious but also reflects the complete inability of the international system to address mass atrocities. Inaction is rapidly becoming the norm.

From Yemen, Libya to Syria, Afghanistan to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, South Sudan to Democratic Republic of Congo, there are countless examples of mass atrocities (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity) taking place where no meaningful action is taken.

As such, it is interesting to note that both the UK foreign affairs committee and the international development committee have made recommendations for the British government to develop a national strategy to prevent atrocities. The UK is already a major advocate for the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P), affirming it within the 2015-25 Security and Defence Strategy. However, after the controversial 2011 intervention in Libya, criticized for using R2P as a fig leaf for regime change, the doctrine has largely fallen out of favour.

However, a focus on prevention should be welcomed, and is critical, as the human and financial costs are so much higher once atrocities have taken place. A core component of a prevention strategy could focus on strengthening early warning systems, for example how human rights treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review could be used to flag early signs of potential conflict.

Other components would include ensuring there is a strong development nexus which ensures overseas aid supports programming, which tackles the root causes of conflict. Sustainable Development Goal 16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies and ensure access to justice for all with effective institutions, sets out a comprehensive framework for the international community.

This framework could provide an effective tool for aligning development work with early prevention approaches. Other actions, as noted in the respective select committee reports, could include preventative peacekeeping in acute situations and strengthening international and regional co-operation through diplomatic means and negotiations.

However, there are question marks as to whether these are priorities for the UK government which they can deliver on. The UK’s recent failures to play a global leadership role — whether it was the poor response to the refugees arriving in Europe or its role in rebuilding Libya after the 2011 NATO-led intervention — could be read as the UK retreating from its international responsibilities.

With Brexit, deep financial cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the 0.7 per cent of GNI allocated to international development aid increasingly under attack, it is unclear what leading role the UK could actually play in preventing mass atrocities. Domestically, political energies are focused on trying to negotiate Brexit and there seems little clarity on what this will then mean for the UK’s role in the international system, specifically its role in ensuring peace and stability. The UK government’s political discourse, to date, has focused more on trade, investment and economic issues.

However, if part of the post-Brexit trajectory is a heightened focus on deepening trading relationships with new partners then there are fundamental tensions the UK government needs to reconcile. Increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia, when it has been documented by international human rights organizations that these same weapons were then used in Yemen, are not only counter to the Arms Trade Treaty but also undercut the UK government having a consistent and coherent voice on mass atrocities.

If the UK government is to play a meaningful role in preventing mass atrocities then it needs to ensure a cross-departmental approach, where differing imperatives are aligned, so that the government does not speak with one voice but act with another.

This article was originally published in Times Red Box.

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