Promoting dialogue and preventing atrocities: the UK government approach


Written evidence from Protection Approaches to the International Development Committee




1.1   This submission comes from Protection Approaches. Protection Approaches works to confront and prevent identity-based violence by developing and implementing innovative programmes that address all forms of hate. From Newham in East London to Bangui in the Central African Republic, we work with local communities, civil society organisations, policymakers, governments, academics and multilateral institutions to develop strategies that predict, prevent and protect people from identity-based violence. Protection Approaches convenes the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group: a group of 20 NGOs based in the UK who collaborate on atrocity prevention policy and advocacy.


1.2   Protection Approaches works with Her Majesty’s Government towards strengthening the UK’s approach to preventing mass atrocity crimes. This involves delivering bespoke trainings, briefings, and capacity building activities.


1.3   Declaration of relevant interests: Dr Kate Ferguson, Co-Executive Director at Protection Approaches, is currently working as a Specialist Advisor to the International Development Select Committee on this inquiry. This written evidence is submitted in an organisational capacity.


1.4   Contact information:


What are atrocity crimes?


2.1   Mass atrocity crimes is a non-legal umbrella term for the specific categories of extreme human rights violations of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes are legally defined international crimes.


2.2   Most modern atrocity crimes have their roots in a particular pathology of violence. This pathology has the following features:


2.3   This pathology of mass atrocity crimes is for the most part missed by approaches of Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) to conflict, stability, democratisation, and development.


2.4   Mass atrocity crimes can happen in conflict situations, such as in Syria and the Central African Republic, outside them, such as in North Korea and Venezuela, or in hybrid contexts such as Myanmar or Iraq, where atrocities occur as a distinct phenomenon from other manifestations of political violence. Therefore, preparing for and enhancing atrocity prevention approaches requires analysis both of countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo where many risk factors for conflict and atrocity are present, but also countries such as Brazil, Egypt and Nigeria where hate speech and compromised state institutions give rise to the risks of so-called peacetime atrocities. Annex I sets out why conflict prevention is not the same as atrocity prevention.


2.5   Many continue to consider mass atrocities as extreme and aberrant phenomena but in reality, these crimes are not particularly exceptional; they are fairly frequent. Mass atrocities are rising inside and outside of conflict. The driving forces behind them – inequality, social fracture, democratic backsliding, resource scarcity, arms proliferation, climate change and the internationalisation of malign networks are all moving in the wrong direction. As a result, structural and physical violence against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, political affiliation, age, disability or class remains a common feature of our modern world.


2.6   As Covid-19’s societal, economic and political consequences deepen, climate change-induced events become more common and severe, and political dynamics become more polarised and exclusionary. Widespread and systematic identity-based violence – including mass atrocities – will thus likely become increasingly frequent as we approach the mid-21st century. We judge that unless prevention thinking and prevention-first policy become central to contemporary national and multilateral politics – not only in the UK but worldwide – the next political era will be characterised by escalating identity-based violence and mass atrocity.


2.7   These trends are not specific to some geographies and contexts; the antecedents of mass atrocity crimes are different from those of armed conflict and can be found in practically every society in the world. The prevention of identity-based violence and mass atrocities is not something that is needed in some places some of the time, but everywhere all of the time.


2.8   Mass atrocities are predictable and very often preventable. There is no silver bullet for halting genocide or crimes against humanity in their tracks but there are tools, strategies, and principles that when applied well and consistently, can reduce risk, improve protection, and save lives. A base line for all states, businesses, multilateral organisations – for all of us – must be to take action against complicity and enablement. Inserting the question of how a certain course of action may increase of decrease risks of identity-based violence and atrocity crimes into state decision-making is the simplest step towards prevention that HMG can take. Such a framework is currently absent from UK decision-making, from trade policy to asylum policy.


2.9   Preventing mass atrocities is a matter of national interest and security for all states. Just looking at the UK and Europe as an example, failure to develop a coherent strategy on mass atrocity crimes has left the UK – and others – ill-equipped to foresee, prepare for, and respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Failure in the 1990s by the UK – and others – to properly identify the distinct pathology of violence implemented against Bosnia’s Muslims, led directly to a failed international response to the deliberate strategy of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in a state of frozen conflict since 1995; risks of state fracture, of identity-based violence, and of mass atrocity crimes are high, with the Ukraine crisis further exacerbating tensions. The future of a safer Europe, indeed of a safer UK, is facing growing threat. A comprehensive national approach to modern mass atrocity crimes that prioritises the prevention of what is coming next as well as firefighting what is happening right now must, finally, be adopted by HMG.


2.10           The next section assesses the UK’s approach to mass atrocity crimes as it has evolved over recent years and according to information that is publicly available. It is our understanding that there are some efforts within HMG to develop UK contributions to the prevention of mass atrocities, but at the time of writing, these plans were unpublished.


An overview of the UK’s approach to atrocity crimes


3.1   Between 2005 and about 2018, HMG had no developed position at all on atrocity prevention beyond its continuing support of the UN principle of the responsibility to protect. Because this principle was born out of the rooms of the United Nations, HMG developed some modest means of translating its support for the principle, but only in ways that were directed towards those rooms. In other words, the UK’s understanding of R2P and atrocity prevention until recently, was commitments to be upheld and deployed via rhetorical and diplomatic contributions in New York – and not as a strategic objective to be embedded across UK national government. The UK’s approach to mass atrocities and to R2P was to ‘pass  up to the UN, but not to integrate it into UK policy.


3.2   The UK has had a ‘focal point for the responsibility to protect’ for some years, although it has always been unclear quite how that role is internally understood and incorporated within HMG policymaking. Our assessments have continually found that it is an underdeveloped function, without a budget or resources. We often need to tell officials working in country teams that this role exists and should be part of any country-to-London alert system.


3.3   Over the past five years, however, UK government engagement with the global challenge of mass atrocity crimes has evolved, moving from an agenda of low-to-no priority to one that is now – on paper at least – part of HMG’s vision for British foreign policy. At the same time, this progress has often been contrary and lacklustre.


3.4   On the one hand, important steps forward have been made. In 2018, then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt committed to ‘doing more’ on atrocity prevention.[1] The publication of a cross-departmental guidance note on the UK’s national approach to atrocity prevention in 2019 signalled a welcome move away from viewing atrocity prevention through the narrow lens of military intervention to a more holistic agenda encompassing development and diplomacy as well as the Ministry of Defence. [2] Public acknowledgement that Lord Ahmad is the minister with responsibility for UK atrocity prevention has given some clarity to ministerial responsibility. That said, atrocity prevention is still not a distinct public portfolio.


3.5   In 2018, following the death of Jo Cox MP, who championed UK atrocity prevention during her time in Parliament, DfID established a grant window of £10 million to support work that empowered women or that contributed to the prevention of identity-based violence, including mass atrocities. This was the first fund ever created towards this second goal.[3] The three-year programme ends this summer; we are not aware of any plans to renew this one-off fund.


3.6   Some of the most encouraging changes have come from thematic and country teams where recognition that gaps in UK policy and programming have led to missed opportunities to mitigate risk, have led to modest but important conceptual, programmatic, structural and other internal changes. Lessons have been learnt in Myanmar in the wake of the atrocities committed against Rohingya populations in Rakhine, but it appears that those lessons have been slow to influence Whitehall and other country teams.[4]


3.7   The strongest indication from Whitehall of a commitment to ‘do more’ came in the outcomes of the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review of Defence, Diplomacy and Development, where atrocity prevention is identified as something to be prioritised in the 2030 foreign policy framework. [5] The implications and implementation of this new prioritisation are still being worked out as sub-strategies and the new Conflict Centre are being developed. Slowly, atrocity prevention is being recognised as a distinct and important agenda. [6]


3.8   On the other hand, however, UK atrocity prevention still has no budget, no policy, no strategy, and no internal mechanism or other means of coordinated institutional implementation. Atrocity prevention is not considered a matter for the National Security Council and as such not viewed as a matter of national interest. There is no means of government-wide rapid warning or risk escalation, nor to the best of our knowledge - are there emergency communications protocols in place in the vast majority of UK embassies in countries where atrocities are a risk or are ongoing. There are no senior officials in London, as far as we are aware, who are tasked with responsibility for, or oversight of, UK atrocity prevention.


3.9   Time and again, we have observed the extent to which atrocity prevention thinking, expertise, policy, and strategy have been lacking at every stage of an atrocity prevention cycle – from early and urgent warning, to when violence begins and is ongoing, through to the wake of mass atrocities and enduring risks of recurrence. Some examples include Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Russia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.


3.10           HMG’s horizon scanning and risks assessment tools are slow and unable to respond to rapidly unfolding crises. In the past, the UK’s early warning system has over-relied upon two core processes: the Cabinet Office’s annual Countries at Risk of Instability (CRI); and the Joint Analysis of Conflict and Stability (JACS). While both are powerful analytical tools, neither are early warning mechanisms capable of capturing real-time threats and informing rapid responses. While the JACS was updated to become a tool of atrocity prevention analysis in 2021, the public guidance on this change has still not been made public. It is unclear whether the CRI now also includes indicators of identity-based violence and mass atrocity. Irrespective, they are both processes for analysing longer-term trends and establishing agreed-upon understandings and approaches across government. As a result, they continue to miss or underappreciate mass atrocity risks, including omitting the Central African Republic in its 2013 risk analysis, despite it being a state extremely prone to atrocity crimes; by December that year, ‘widespread and systematic mass atrocity crimes, including killings on the basis of religious identity, had become a feature of a crisis that was rapidly expanding in scale and scope.’[7] We are regularly told by country teams that they are in need of a lightweight means of monitoring and assessing day-to-day and month-to-month trends of identity-based violence and atrocity risks, but that they lack the time, opportunity and often the skills to do so.


3.11           Our work has found that requests from HMG embassy teams to Whitehall for support on atrocity prevention, from modest funds for training to guidance on where in Whitehall to direct urgent concerns, are often left unsatisfied or unanswered. Our analysis finds that even country teams that are considered by HMG to be leading the way on atrocity prevention are curtailed in their efforts by the persistent lack of clarity on what HMG’s positions are in relation to mass atrocities, their prevention, and possible policy responses in the face of rising risk. Country teams are increasingly coming to Protection Approaches to request training or other support but are unable to pay for the costs of those activities.


3.12           While some ad-hoc contributions are made, the FCDO has no ringfenced funding available for atrocity prevention programming, atrocity prevention training, or to support atrocity prevention organisations, research, or analysis in the UK. (As new budgets to support new priorities set out in the integrated review are finalised, this may well change.) While the FCDO makes a modest contribution to the excellent work of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, it makes no contributions that we are aware of, to UK-based atrocity prevention expertise. Cuts to the Global Challenges Research Fund further damaged UK expertise in this area. Aid cuts appear to be hitting atrocity-affected countries hardest, including programming that contributes to reducing atrocity risks. It is difficult to see how any analysis of, or commitment to, the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide can be informing the majority of publicly available FCDO budgets. Atrocity prevention is cost effective; at a time when HMG is needing to do more with less, investing in prevention should be a given.


3.13           Deep inconsistency runs through any analysis of the UK’s approach to mass atrocity crimes. This is the inevitable consequence of having no clear policy or strategy. As can be seen from HMG’s unpreparedness in the face of the rapid Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s approach to even the most explicit risks of mass atrocity remains reactive, drawing on a very narrow playbook of policy options that are already priced into the perpetrator’s costs of committing their crimes. From the earliest days of Russia’s invasion, the deliberate, widespread and systematic violations of human rights, from targeting civilians to employing siege tactics, have been central to the implementation of Putin’s political and military strategies. Despite this, HMG failed to prepare for this likelihood. HMG’s Ukraine policy has been characterised by response rather than strategy; of firefighting rather than prevention or protection.


3.14           The implications of not having a policy or strategy on mass atrocities are considerable; a national strategy on mass atrocities is not a nice-to-have but is necessary for the fulfilment of multiple strategic and security priorities of any UK government. The UK cannot, for example, develop strategies towards Russia, China, or India without integrating an understanding of atrocity dynamics and their consequences. The UK cannot develop a policy on climate change and its consequences without first having an understanding of, and strategy towards, identity-based mass violence and atrocity crimes. The UK’s approaches to preventing sexual violence in conflict, to modern slavery, to serious and organised crime, and to the protection of civilians all require deep understanding of – and a policy framework for – how the UK approaches mass atrocity crimes. Without an understanding of and policy framework for how the UK approaches mass atrocities, new legislation relating to the offshoring of migrants and refugees brings considerable risk of HMG pursuing policy that commonly leads to states creating conditions that violate the rights of detained population in a widespread, systematic manner and can meet the definitions of crimes against humanity. UK trade policy also requires such an understanding and framework, whether to ensure that British supply chains are not profiting from the products of atrocity crimes or as a means of assessing possible points of UK leverage in bilateral relations; without bringing in this thinking, for example, HMG missed valuable opportunities to influence the Myanmar government as bilateral trade and business relations warmed between 2012-2016. How is such thinking informing UK investment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example? If the UK wishes to uphold, or simply strengthen its contributions to, the responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities, then it must embed to some degree an understanding of, a strategic vision for, and a means of implementing UK atrocity prevention across government. Most fundamentally for this inquiry, any strategy on UK contributions to international development would have to be informed by how HMG understands mass atrocity crimes, where they come from, how their prevention can intersect with, and at times run in contraction to, traditional UK approaches to building stability and preventing conflict.


3.15           There is no binary division of the world into perpetrator and protector states: virtually all states are complicit to a greater or lesser extent, and all states have responsibilities both towards upholding international commitments to prevent atrocity crimes and to improving their own domestic responses to atrocity risks. The UK is no different. However, it currently lacks the strategic systems, policies, and resources to assess this balance and to take decisions that are informed by such analysis. As a human rights charity, we believe that decisions should be made with rights and responsibilities at their centre. However, a fundamental baseline surely must be that some assessment of rights and responsibilities is made and that decisions are taken in a transparent and accountable manner.


3.16           There are brilliant people within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances – whether on the frontline in contexts of mass atrocity, or within the ongoing flux and low morale of the department. None of the analysis presented in this evidence should be interpreted as undermining the efforts of those officials who have, many for decades, sought to adjust and develop HMG programming, strategy, and engagement in order to improve UK contributions to the prevention of violence and the protection of populations. However, without strategy, policy, funds, coordination and resourcing these efforts continue to fall short. It is not sufficient – indeed is not justifiable – for ministers – indeed the Prime Minister – to rely upon in-country personnel to shoulder the burden of the UK’s responsibilities to help prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Political leadership and strategic clarity are dearly needed.


3.17           Despite important examples of progress, Protection Approaches remains deeply concerned about the persistent reluctance of HMG to take seriously the threat posed to global and British security by modern mass atrocity crimes. While all states must shoulder the burden of prevention and protection, we believe that as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as a state which aspires to global leadership, and in the interests of a secure nation, Britain can and must narrow the gaps between the commitments it has made on the global stage on this agenda and their practical implementation.[8]


Where to from here? Recommendations to HMG


4.1   Enhancing UK contributions to the prevention of mass atrocities requires distinct strategies, systems, and skills but should not necessarily raise fears of increased costs. The application of a coherent strategy, greater consistency and integration of policy, and a mapping of the levers and actors for change, can achieve significant improvements without much increase in resourcing beyond staffing and new expertise. Modest investment in analytical capacity to better understand problems can dramatically increase the efficacy of the application of remaining resources. Where there are opportunities to increase resourcing, it is nearly always cost effective to do so, as can be seen when one weighs these costs against the crippling and long-lasting economic consequences of either action or inaction in the face of atrocities that are not prevented. This section sets out our recommendations for HMG that are low cost but high impact; they are about system changes, resource prioritisation, capacity building, and new ways of thinking.


4.2   Protection Approaches has long called for the UK to adopt a national strategy on mass atrocity crimes. Such an approach does not necessarily need to be cumbersome; relatively modest changes will deliver strategic and measurable results. We recommend a) investing in analytical capacity and expertise, b) the creation a central focal hub, to develop atrocity prevention policies and communicate with the network of actors across government to ensure its implementation, and c) resourcing country teams to centre atrocity prevention in their work.


4.3   The institutionalisation of atrocity prevention must be whole-of government, otherwise the attempts to prevent atrocities by one section will be undermined by actions of other parts of government. The Integrated Review and the decision to merge the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office created genuine opportunity to bring an integration of atrocity prevention across the UK’s international policy and its embassies. But a state’s contribution to the prevention of identity-based violence and mass atrocity necessarily must also fall outside of these areas; for example, in the fields of export licencing, education, asylum, border policy, justice and trade.[9] We recommend the adoption of a national strategy that is embedded across the new architectures of government, similar to the national strategy on serious and organised crime. Such an approach would see its proper integration throughout departments, risk mechanisms, and policy leading to the mandating of training, and the creation of new positions of appropriate seniority and a joining up across agendas and priorities.[10]


4.4   Tasking senior officials across departments with upholding and overseeing national atrocity prevention contributions will help establish greater coherence across, and therefore more effective implementation of, policy areas such as international development, sanctions policy, trade, justice and accountability, asylum, defence, and humanitarian response. In other words, establishing an atrocity prevention “seat” at the policy-making table will help maximise and coordinate contributions towards effective prediction and prevention across government.[11] At its simplest, atrocity prevention must be consciously integrated into job descriptions and job titles but also must be integrated across existing systems of monitoring, analysis, communication and policy.


4.5   It is essential that atrocity prevention become a matter for the National Security Council and the Cabinet Office. Any serious development of the UK approach to mass atrocities must bring together senior representatives of government departments, Number 10, the intelligence agencies, and UK leads in multilateral fora, from the United Nations to NATO. Until this happens, UK contributions to the prevention of mass atrocities will always be hamstrung.


4.6   Any National Atrocity Prevention Strategy should be organised around three core strands – communication between and across government, analysis to ensure an appropriate response and institutionalisation to ensure the integration of atrocity prevention across all government policies.[12]


4.7   HMG must adopt a lightweight system of urgent warning and immediate risk. Knowing what to look for, how to analyse the information and how to ‘raise the alarm’ are crucial steps for timely warning and effective action.


4.8   HMG must establish a clear internal communications protocol setting out how to monitor imminent warning signs, triggering moments, indicators and risk factors, and also when and how to raise the alarm – both across government and externally – and guidance on escalation.[13] Such a protocol would also provide guidance for officials and ministers on policy options.


4.9   HMG must urgently invest in network analysis tools and systems. Network mapping is an analytical tool that continues to be undervalued in the field of atrocity prevention. Disrupting and dismantling the architecture of atrocities as a means of prevention or mitigation remains more a tool likely to be employed by military actors engaged in armed conflict, security actors in response to violent extremism and terrorism, and in the increasingly sophisticated strategies against organised crime. Such analysis should be informing all UK policy towards Russia and Ukraine – and any response to atrocity risks. Network analysis brings to light the full spectrum of actors that enable the perpetration of violence, including supply chains, human trafficking networks, the arms trade, media outlets, armed groups, and communities themselves. Network analysis allows actors to target those weak spots – be they financial flows, communication systems, or other forms of enablement. Conversely, it can also bring to light where levers of change lie and existing local networks that can help prevent mass atrocity crimes. Network analysis should inform how, when and how HMG invests in states and develops programming.


4.10           HMG must invest in UK civil society. The UK is home to a vibrant atrocity prevention sector, including but not limited to the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group.[14] These are the organisations that work with diaspora groups, victims, vulnerable communities and other populations present within a state’s national borders who are directly affected by atrocities and who are already plugged into community networks of early warning; and this is where expertise of national specificities of policy, culture, and capabilities lie. Such investment is usually cheap, consisting of research, analysis, coordination and convening, training, psychosocial support, documentation, legal advice, advocacy, commemoration and cultural events.


Supporting HMG embassies and country teams


5.1   UK country teams are a crucial tool of how HMG can respond proactively and swiftly to risks of mass violence. While there are already embassy teams dedicating time, people and resources to atrocity prevention, all Embassy teams, especially those in fragile or violent states, should be properly resourced to centre atrocity prevention thinking and strategy within its policy and programming. Lessons can be learnt from other UK country teams such as Myanmar where important changes have been made to monitoring and communicating risks, and where a role with responsibility for coordinating atrocity prevention matters has been created.


5.2   The mission in Myanmar, for example, following hard lessons learnt in the aftermath of the 2017 atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine, has developed new tools, boosted capacity, and altered the country strategy –all in a manner that specifically centres the prevention of identity-based violence and mass atrocity crimes, rather than assuming that traditional approaches to development, democracy building and conflict prevention will be sufficient.


5.3   Protection Approaches therefore recommends that HMG urgently support atrocity prevention for the Embassies in at-risk countries, and ultimately all Embassy staff globally. We recommend the following concrete ways:





Annex I. Why conflict prevention is not the same at atrocity prevention



HMG frequently still argues that armed conflicts are a precursor to, or an enabling condition for, the occurrence of mass atrocity crimes. That is why preventing atrocities is still seen by (a lot of) HMG to follow on from conflict prevention or, once violence has begun, the protection of civilians. If conflict prevention is done well, HMG argues, you don’t need atrocity prevention. This ignores that the relationship of cause and effect is, in fact, frequently reversed.


Often mass atrocities come first and cause armed conflict to break out, for example:



A significant number of modern atrocities occur outside of armed conflict, for example: 



Where atrocity crimes do take place during war, their deliberate perpetration is either part of the political strategy of a party to the conflict or pursued in parallel, under the cover of conflict, for example:



Half of the most explicit and publicly acknowledged current situations of atrocity are occurring outside of, or unrelated to, armed conflict. Of the 12 crises mapped by the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (November 2021), three (North Korea, Venezuela, China) are taking place in countries where there is no armed conflict and a further three (Afghanistan, Myanmar and Cameroon) are situations where there is limited interaction between the armed conflict and the risk of atrocities.


HMG must recognise that mass atrocities and conflict operate in different ways, and have different objectives, and therefore merit different responses. Mass atrocities are characterised by a particular pathology of violence that is different to armed conflict and currently missed by HMG’s approach to conflict prevention. Unlike most armed conflicts, mass atrocities are:



[1] “An Invisible Chain”: Foreign Secretary speaks on Britain’s place in the world at Policy Exchange, Policy Exchange, Oct 31st 2018,

[2] HMG, “UK approach to preventing mass atrocities,” July 2019

[3] HMG, Jo Cox Memorial Grants – impact and reflections, 16 June 2021

[4] Kate Ferguson, ‘For the wind is in the palm-trees: The 2017 Rohingya atrocities and the UK approach to

prevention’, Global Responsibility to Protect, May 2021

[5] HMG, “Global Britain in a competitive age The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” March 2021

[6] Kate Ferguson, “A response to the Integrated Review,” Foreign Policy Centre, 18 March 2021

[7] Evan Cinq-Mars, Too little, too late, Failing to prevent atrocities in the Central African Republic, Global

Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, September 2015

[8] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis, Jason Ralph, “Global Britain in the United Nations,” UNA-UK, 2018

[9] UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, “Statement on the Integrated Review,” 1 April 2021

[10] Kate Ferguson, “A response to the Integrated Review,” Foreign Policy Centre, 18 March 2021

[11] Alex J. Bellamy, Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the

Responsibility to Prevent, The Stanley Centre, February 2011; See also Wilton Park, “Prevention of mass

atrocities (WP1645)”, October 2018

[12] UNA-UK, PA,

[13] Protection Approaches and United Nations Association – UK: Written evidence to Foreign Affairs Select Committee (INR0087),