Promoting dialogue and preventing atrocities

Evidence from Westminster Foundation for Democracy

  1. Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is the UK public body dedicated to supporting democracy around the world. WFD works with parliaments, political parties, and civil society groups as well as on elections to help make countries’ political systems fairer and more inclusive, accountable and transparent. Formed in 1992, WFD has worked in over 38 countries around the world, many of which have been fragile or conflict-affected, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka. The evidence submitted here is based on current academic opinion as well as insights from WFD’s work.

The role of UK aid programmes in atrocity prevention

  1. UK aid programmes can contribute to atrocity prevention by building resilience in fragile and conflict-affected states. Fragile states are at greater risk of atrocities. Fragility is determined by a range of economic, environmental, political, security, social and societal conditions, all of which interact with each other to increase the risk of atrocities. There is increasing recognition that the best way to prevent atrocities is to build long-term, systemic resilience. Resilience depends on the capacity of the state, systems and communities to absorb these risks. Building resilience is a multi-dimensional challenge to which different actors – politicians, institutions, non-governmental organisations and international organisationscan contribute.[1]


  1. Building resilience is a long-term effort. The question of how to prevent atrocities often comes up when conflict seems imminent, by which time, options are very limited. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework[2] is often referenced in relation to atrocity prevention. It is best known for its third pillar, which describes the conditions under which the international community may organise a collective response to protect the civilian population from atrocities. However, the first two pillars of R2P focus on the responsibilities of states to protect their citizens from atrocities and international actors in assisting with these efforts. National and international actors in fragile and conflict-affected contexts should prioritise these responsibilities long before actual hostilities take place. The UK can assist fragile and conflict-affected states by (1) supporting institutions that can prevent atrocities, (2) promoting political inclusion as a key to mitigating conflict and (3) promoting political pluralism and dialogue between political opponents.


  1. International actors can contribute to resilience by providing much-needed support to institutions that have a role in preventing atrocities. Institutions like parliaments and human rights institutions can strengthen resilience to conflict and instability, but whether they do so depends to a high degree on their legitimacy, quality and effectiveness.[3] The legitimacy of institutions depends on how they relate to society and to what extent they are reflective of broader social relationships in society. In highly polarised contexts, institutions are more likely to be perceived as partisan and distrusted by underrepresented groups. Quality and effectiveness depend on institutional capacities and resources and the extent to which there is political buy-in for their work. The international community can contribute to building resilience to conflict by investing in legitimate and effective institutions.


  1. International actors can also contribute to resilience against atrocities by promoting political inclusion. Inclusion is key to atrocity prevention. Peace negotiations often focus on the leaders of the warring parties, who are almost always men. This ‘elite pact’ approach may help to bring a stop to the fighting, but it cannot provide the deep roots necessary to embed the whole of society in a degree of political consensus that allows for stability and progress. It means that women and other marginalised groups, representing the majority of most societies, are usually excluded. As a result, the peace settlement tends to reinforce the existing social order and drivers of conflict are not addressed. Existing evidence indicates that inclusion reduces tensions and violence which can lead to renewed conflict. There is also growing evidence that the inclusion of women in peace processes makes peace last longer.[4] The UK can support – and has already supported - inclusion of women in politics and peace processes. For example, in Sudan, WFD has trained women representing all factions in the Sudanese peace process to work with the negotiation tracks of security, governance and humanitarian assistance, including bargaining techniques. This enabled them to be involved in the peace process (and may be strengthening their continuing resistance to military disruption of the peace process). In Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), WFD works with women from all political parties and ethnic backgrounds to promote understanding and mutual respect. By meeting with each other and finding common ground, they disprove narratives that suggest that people in BiH cannot live together.


  1. Finally, the international community can play a positive role in atrocity prevention by supporting political pluralism and dialogue between political opponents. International organisations can sometimes convene political actors in ways that domestic organisations cannot. For example, in Sierra Leone in 2019, there was an increased risk of political violence as a result of the breakdown of parliamentary proceedings after the two main parties lost their duopoly in parliament and new parties and independent candidates entered the fray. WFD and the European Union led a process of dialogue and reconciliation between the political and administrative leaders of the parliament. Against a background of bitter rivalry, they were able to agree on the Bo Declaration, a set of commitments about how to organise parliamentary business and integrate more consultative practices, thereby neutralising a potential source of conflict.

Opportunities to bring the UK’s diplomatic and aid work together in atrocity prevention

  1. As atrocities often originate in political conflict, it is essential for diplomatic and aid efforts to be aligned. The key is to achieve coherence and complementarity of diplomatic and aid efforts. This requires close cooperation between Posts and aid implementers. In Bosnia & Herzegovina, WFD and the British Embassy have formed a successful partnership to advance the inclusion of women in politics. WFD’s programme was firmly embedded in the Embassy’s business plan and consistent with their priority areas and messaging. WFD provided training and mentoring to support women in their political careers while the Embassy secured political buy-in by making public appearances and statements in support of increased political participation of women. The combination of the Embassy’s political and diplomatic influence with WFD’s technical expertise increased the impact of the programme.


  1. Any programme that aims to achieve impact in conflict and post-conflict settings entails a substantial amount of political and other types of risk. When international organisations (including aid implementers) take a position on sensitive topics, it can result in backlash, reputational damage and even endanger local staff. Posts can help mitigate these risks for aid implementers by speaking out publicly in support of their work and explaining the UK’s position. Posts and aid implementers need to work together closely to ensure there is clarity of purpose, a shared understanding about the risks involved and agreement that the level of risk is proportionate to the expected impact.

How the UK Government’s approach to atrocity prevention interacts with other government policies and areas of work, such as the FCDO’s approach to conflict prevention, the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative

  1. The UK’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security 2018 to 2022[5] rightly prioritises Strategic Outcome 1: women’s meaningful and representative participation and leadership in decision-making processes, including conflict prevention and peacebuilding at the community and national levels. The NAP recognises that inclusive policymaking is necessary not only for sustainable peace outcomes but also for conflict mitigation and creation of stable societies. Women’s political participation and leadership is key to achieving inclusive policymaking. While the intention outlined in the NAP is clear, the 2020 annual report to parliament on its implementation shows low success in meeting the indicators against this strategic outcome. Women remain largely left out of formal decision-making spaces, and in some cases face threats to their lives for demanding access.


  1. The UK Government’s approach to atrocity prevention would benefit from dedicated investment in addressing the barriers to women’s political leadership in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This requires a recognition of women’s political leadership in informal spaces as well as in elected positions.[6] Women lead and participate in community building, in activism, and in women’s rights movements during conflict, but are not similarly present in official processes. Specific interventions on women’s participation and leadership in peacebuilding and conflict prevention should be mainstreamed through all cross-government conflict prevention programming, much in the same way that WPS has been successfully mainstreamed into National Security Council country strategies. The UK Government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative is an opportunity to do so.


[1] OECD. 2020. States of Fragility 2020.