International Development Select Committee Inquiry: UK Government’s Approach to Atrocity Prevention

Submission of Evidence by the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) 19.01.22



The PHRG believes it is important for the UK Government to adopt a more comprehensive cross-departmental mass atrocity prevention strategic approach – preferably a formal strategy, led by the FCDO, underpinned by the requisite understanding, capacity and resourcing, and building on its existing expertise and work, in order to have greater impact in helping to prevent and reduce the incalculable human suffering which results from these crimes, but also to strengthen peace and security internationally and domestically, and to clearly demonstrate its avowed intent to be a force for good in the world.




1.1.          This evidence is being submitted by the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG), one of the oldest and most active APPGs in the UK Parliament, further to its work over many decades in raising greater awareness in Parliament and more widely of serious and systematic international human rights and humanitarian violations, and encouraging the UK Government and others to take more effective action in addressing such violations.  The current list of Officers and other details about the PHRG are set out in the APPG Register entry (see:


1.2.          The PHRG does not purport to be an expert in this field, but believes it has acquired relevant knowledge and insight through its monitoring activities and engaging with civil society representatives as well as the FCDO and other officials on a number of situations globally which have featured or currently feature mass atrocity crimes, that is, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, often over long periods of time, both in conflict (international and non-international) and non-conflict settings, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, China, East Timor/Timor Leste, Cameroon, DRC and Ethiopia.  It also believes there is a very real risk of mass atrocities being committed in other countries, such as in Afghanistan, and is concerned by what appears to be the growing risk of the commission of identity-based mass atrocity crimes worldwide. 


1.3.          Though the PHRG’s work on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been limited, it is aware of the historical legacy of mass atrocity crimes there, particularly the 1995 Srebrenica massacre subsequently recognised as an act of genocide by the UN-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  It is also aware of continuing and increasing tension between ethnic communities in that country, evidenced by reports of, inter alia, hate speech and glorification of past atrocity crimes and convicted war criminals, including by politicians and officials; segregated public service delivery; intimidation and harassment of, threats of and incitement to targeted violence, and actual violence against individuals on the basis of their ethnic identity. These reports have given rise to concern about the possibility of the commission of further mass atrocity crimes, and to calls for greater action now on the part of the international community, including the UK, to prevent this.



1.4.          The PHRG recognises that mass atrocity crimes may be linked to armed conflict or instability, as has been or is the case in, for example, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the DRC, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Bosnia, but that genocide and crimes against humanity can also be carried out in non-conflict settings, as illustrated currently by the on-going extreme persecution of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang by Chinese state authorities.


1.5.          The PHRG would also note that state actors who intentionally set out to target and victimise certain groups or civilian populations often deny what they are doing, or may even attempt to justify their actions by claiming they are in pursuit of legitimate, indeed crucial, policy goals, such as counter-terrorism, ethnic, religious or societal cohesion, political stability, and/or territorial integrity or defence.  Such self-serving rationalisations, particularly when a situation of concern is developing within a country, can also be accompanied with assertions that the matter is purely an internal one, an issue of state sovereignty, and other countries and actors should not interfereThe PHRG would contend, however, that acts likely to result in the commission of mass atrocity crimes should not be viewed as internal matters or a function of state sovereignty, and indeed necessitate a robust response from the international community. 


1.6.          Of course, non-state actors can have an important, perhaps even the key role, in some instances, such as IS/Daesh in the case of atrocities committed against Yazidis and others in Iraq and Syria, which can be very difficult to prevent and address when such actors have effective control over a particular territory.


1.7.          The PHRG believes it is important for the UK Government to be doing more on mass atrocity prevention, so it can, first and foremost, have more impact in helping to prevent and reduce the incalculable human suffering which results from these crimes, but also to strengthen peace and security internationally and domestically, and to clearly demonstrate its avowed intent, including in the Integrated Review, to be a force for good in the world.




2.1.          The FCDO is the obvious Departmental candidate for taking the lead within the UK Government on mass atrocity prevention, given it largely controls the levers of diplomatic engagement and development aid within Whitehall.


2.2.          The FCDO’s core responsibilities for international diplomacy and development assistance, as well as the presence of embassy staff in countries who engage directly with Governmental counterparts and key civil society representatives and oversee and help deliver the UK’s aid programme, should enable the FCDO to monitor what is taking place, identify trends of concern and take effective bilateral and multilateral action on behalf of the UK Government to prevent mass atrocity crimes and/or their continuation in specific countries.


2.3.          An effective mass atrocity prevention strategic approach, however, would require the engagement of many other Government departments, including the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Trade and the Home Office, to ensure, inter alia, that perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes are not being supported through arms exports, security sector assistance or trade policies/agreements, and that UK domestic policy serves as a model of good practice, in relation to, for example, the promotion of community cohesion, protection of vulnerable groups and access to justice for hate crimes and discriminatory practices.    




3.1.          The Government has highlighted its commitment to atrocity prevention in its recent Integrated Review, the publication of its UK Approach to Preventing Mass Atrocities in 2019, and oft-repeated commitments to it and R2P.


3.2.          The UK Government has also often asserted that a focus on and integrated approach to conflict prevention is the best way to prevent most mass atrocities, particularly work that seeks to address the root causes and drivers of conflict and instability, through tackling corruption, promoting good governance, improving access to security and justice, and furthering inclusive economic development (see, for example, response of FDCO Minister Lord Ahmad of 09.03.20 as at:; and response of FCDO Minister Vicky Ford of 24.11.21 as at:


3.3.          Despite this, however, the UK Government appears to have a limited understanding of and/or ability to articulate the complex linkages between conflict prevention and mass atrocity prevention, the relevance of mass atrocity prevention outside of conflict situations, and the way in which situations of concern are identified and acted upon.


3.4.          These limitations are evidenced, for instance, by the following:


3.5.          Of course, the PHRG appreciates that the FCDO has some expertise in mass atrocity prevention, with the 2019 UK Approach specifically referring to the FCO’s Director of Multilateral Policy as being the senior official responsible for these policy areas and the UK’s R2P ‘Focal Point’, and others in the FCDO’s Human Rights and Rule of Law Department and at some posts also having relevant knowledge; the FCDO is undertaking work on mass atrocity prevention in relation to Myanmar and the DRC; and, the FCDO is supporting, even leading, on important mass atrocity evidence gathering and documentation initiatives.

3.6.          However, the PHRG does not believe this expertise and work yet amounts to a comprehensive strategic approach which would maximise the UK Government’s impact, particularly to prevent mass atrocities, as they would appear at present to be: piecemeal and confined within opaque silos; more reactive than proactive, in that action seems to be taken after atrocity crimes have already occurred; and, poorly communicated to stakeholders, including through official Government documents and Ministerial responses.




4.1.          The PHRG believes the elements set out below should underpin, and be seen to underpin, the FCDO’s mass atrocity prevention work, and a more effective UK Government cross-departmental strategic approach.


4.2.          In the first instance, the PHRG would like to see more evidence of the FCDO, and other relevant Government Departments, using important indicators to assess the risk of the commission of mass atrocities, such as: the incidence of hate speech and other hate crimes; overtly discriminatory ideology, policies and/or practice – whether by state or non-state actors; entrenched political, economic and societal exclusion; extreme power imbalances, systematic repression and/or the lack of effective accountability and grievance mechanisms; and impunity for hate speech, other hate crimes, discriminatory practices and past mass atrocity crimes.


4.3.          Mass atrocity prevention work which should also be more systematically undertaken and specifically referenced include: the promotion of tolerance, diversity and non-discrimination, including in public and private statements, and support for and funding of civil society representatives/organisations championing these; addressing impunity for discriminatory state practice, hate speech, hate crimes and past mass atrocity crimes; support for and protection of vulnerable or marginalised groups, through both diplomatic and development initiatives; engagement with all belligerents in conflict situations on the application of international humanitarian law and sanctions imposed for non-compliance; and deepening co-operation between local, national and international organisations working on related issues, including support for and funding of peace-building, peace-keeping, mediation and the imposition of comprehensive sanctions regimes.


4.4.          In extreme situations, to prevent the imminent commission of mass atrocities and to protect vulnerable populations at imminent risk, consideration should also be given to whether military intervention would be an effective response.  Space constraints, however, do not allow for a more detailed assessment of so-called humanitarian interventions.


4.5.          There also needs to be an explicit acknowledgement that mass atrocity crimes are not always linked to conflict or instability, otherwise the FCDO and other Government Departments will miss important opportunities for mass atrocity prevention. The current case of the extreme persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang by the Chinese authorities, in what effectively amounts to a genocidal campaign, as the UK Foreign Secretary has herself recently acknowledged, in the absence of political or economic instability or armed conflict, is the culmination of decades of state-sanctioned discriminatory treatment, persecution and repression of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, which was left largely unaddressed by the international community until the last five or so years.


4.6.          In terms of development, the FCDO should not only be asserting and demonstrating that steps are taken to ensure that its aid policy, programmes and/or disbursements do no harm, by not furthering the exclusion, marginalisation or victimisation of groups, particularly on the basis of their identity, in recipient countries, but also that it is proactively assessing, addressing and mitigating the risk of the commission of mass atrocity crimes at all stages of the aid process, including through support for and funding of dialogue, peace-building and reconciliation processes.


4.7.          In addition, the PHRG believes mass atrocity prevention work will often be most successful when there is concerted and strategic action among members of the international community, countries and organisations, including at the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO, to first identify then influence situations of concern, through as many avenues as possible, including public and private diplomacy, development aid, comprehensive targeted arms embargoes and sanctions, mediation and other conflict prevention, resolution and reconciliation efforts such as disarmament and peacekeeping, before there is an escalation and mass atrocity crimes are actually carried out, instead of reacting after the event, which still seems all too often to be the case. In this connection, the PHRG would recommend the UK Government identify more opportunities for concerted and strategic international action on mass atrocity prevention, particularly to circumvent inaction by the UN Security Council.


4.8.          Dedicated resources will be needed to support staff training and time to enable:




5.1.          The PHRG believes that the best way for the UK Government to achieve greater impact and to demonstrate that it is in the forefront on this internationally would be to adopt and publish a clearly articulated comprehensive strategy on mass atrocity prevention, which builds on existing expertise and work and incorporates the elements set out above in Section 4.


5.2.          This strategy should also incorporate relevant expertise and work in connection with its PSVI, Women, Peace & Security, civilian protection, freedom of religion or belief, media freedom, and conflict prevention agendas, and complement strategies on international development, conflict prevention, and civilian protection/human security.


5.3.          The PHRG believes in order to determine how the UK Government should build on its existing expertise and work to develop this strategy, it would be important to have officials, particularly from the FCDO, first clarify on the record the current situation, as regards for example:


5.4.          In the interests of greater accountability, transparency, effectiveness and impact, the PHRG would call on the UK Government, led by the FCDO, in response to this inquiry to commit to: