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We need a national strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities


3 min read

Genocide and crimes against humanity are never inevitable - they can often be prevented. To do so, however, we need to be prepared.

As a flourishing democracy, major economy and permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom has a particular power and responsibility to act. It cannot and should not shoulder responsibility alone, but it must be strategic.

The UK government’s role – and responsibility – in preventing mass atrocities was the focus of the International Development Committee’s report: From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow: Preventing future mass atrocities around the world.

Acting to prevent mass atrocities must be part of our national security decisions

The government’s response to our report – which we publish today – heralds a significant change to government policy.

Ministers have accepted the importance of a “comprehensive” approach to mass atrocity prevention and recognise that this objective must span the whole of government. They have agreed that this government must pursue other means to prevent atrocities in addition to the usual channels at the United Nations.

The explicit recognition that atrocity prevention is a distinct objective from conflict prevention reflects an evolution in government thinking and an endorsement of the committee’s work.

My committee’s inquiry has also driven further, much welcome, changes. The government will empower the Office for Conflict, Stabilisation and Mediation (OCSM) to coordinate relevant cross-government work on atrocity prevention. It also plans to review existing training on atrocity prevention and to release further information each year on its work to prevent atrocities.

This is a relief to me and my colleagues on the International Development Committee – but government must go further.

Although ministers say there is not a need for a national written strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities – “at this time”– the door is now open.

Within the next few months, there is an opportunity to make it a reality and write it into the government’s refreshed foreign policy approach in the updated 2021 Integrated Review.

I urge ministers to set out how the government will mitigate atrocity risks across the whole of government; from trade, exports and supply chains to asylum and border policy. Let it permeate every page as that is the only way to secure lasting change.

The government is moving towards a new, more cost-effective model of foreign policy which addresses atrocity prevention more consistently. This emerging model needs political leadership. Acting to prevent mass atrocities must be part of our national security decisions with all the relevant ministers around the table.

Mass atrocity crimes are not restricted to some parts of the world. During our inquiry, we visited Bosnia and Herzegovina where we met organisations still grappling with genocide and crimes against humanity echoing down the years and a palpable sense that it could happen again.

In Ukraine today, Vladimir Putin’s actions have subjected civilians to endless misery and destruction. The International Criminal Court is already investigating possible war crimes throughout the country. 

Mass atrocity crimes do not require a war zone to take place – think of China, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Syria. We cannot continue to sit by while mass atrocities unfold and be surprised by the horror. Atrocities are preventable and our report provides a roadmap to achieve that.


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

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