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Global Britain can play a leading role in atrocity prevention

3 min read

I was in my early twenties when a shocking picture of emaciated Bosnian men being held prisoner behind barbed wire was published in the press.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, that image drives me to make sure genocide never happens again. To that end, work has begun on an International Development Select Committee inquiry into how we can improve the government’s efforts to prevent such atrocities through aid and diplomacy.  

Political tensions are rising once more in Bosnia as nationalist sentiments are fanned for political gain. The country will be our case study for the inquiry: we’re asking how UK expertise in peacebuilding through diplomacy and aid programmes can be leveraged to help there, as in the rest of the world.  

It’s not enough to say “Never Again” like we did after the atrocities in Bosnia, or after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. There are resources and skills we can muster to stop these things happening. There are community leaders we can listen to and support.  

We can fund development programmes to blunt the inequalities and injustices which can spark fighting

Just a few days ago the International Development Committee heard from one such community leader, Saidi Zirhumana. He works for a peace promotion charity in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a region ravaged by endemic instability. 

“We implemented a community-based early warning system” when danger from armed groups threatened communities, Zirhumana told my committee. He encouraged local groups to share information with the UN peacekeeping force in DRC as well as with local authorities. It worked, he added: 

“We can already see where there has been prevention of atrocities in the community.” 

Zirhumana’s work was partly funded by the UK government. But, sadly, it is a quite rare example of a small community group getting outside donor support. Small groups are intimidated by the hoops they must go through for donor money – or they just don’t have the skills to access the purseholders.  

That’s one thing the International Development Committee will look into – do we need more small-scale, sensitive work that is locally-led? Do we need more Zirhumanas financed by the Foreign Office? I strongly suspect we do.

Atrocities are on the rise. Denisa Delić from the big aid agency, the International Rescue Committee, told our inquiry that sexual violence, used as a tactic of war, was increasing. One in five refugee or displaced women suffered from it. Delic added that the number of aid workers killed every year is currently around 120 – that’s double the average of 15 years ago.  

There are so many things we, as a rich donor country, can do to help. We can support local communities to identify risks before they grow into conflict, Delić told the committee, then we can use diplomacy to de-escalate tensions. We can fund development programmes to blunt the inequalities and injustices which can spark fighting, she added. And we can send police officers or peacekeeping soldiers who can build relationships of trust in tough neighbourhoods. 

We know some of these tactics work. Natalie Samarasinghe from the UK United Nations Association gave our inquiry the example of the negotiated end to the war in Colombia as an initiative that was handled well by the international community. The successful 2008 de-fusing of an election dispute in Kenya (which some people thought could have led to war) is another example of successful diplomacy, Samarasinghe said.  

One problem in this area is that it is difficult to demonstrate success. It is easy to count ten thousand bags of rice sent to alleviate hunger. But how do we show that we have stopped something terrible happening? Where is the value-for-money measure? Where are the votes for politicians? 

These questions need more work, and over the coming months my committee will seek answers. Prevention is surely morally better - as well as cheaper and more lasting - than clearing up the consequences of hatred and conflict.

When it comes to atrocity prevention, by using the tools of diplomacy and aid money, the UK can play a leading international role. I think that’s the kind of Global Britain we can all be proud of.


Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee. 

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