Promoting dialogue and preventing atrocities: the UK government approach

Written evidence from Dr Cristina G. Stefan to the International Development Committee



1. About


1.1. Biography Dr Stefan is an Associate Professor of International Relations in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. She is also Founding Co-Director of the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P). She has published widely on topics related to the Responsibility to Protect, atrocity prevention, and human protection. Dr Stefan has been recognised as being a World Changerfor impactful research, for her work on Preventing atrocities: How together we can take on this global challenge.Her current research on complex approaches to human protection is funded by the Danish Research Council. In December 2017, she launched the first-ever global network of women working on the Responsibility to Protect, Peace and Security, bringing researchers and academics together with practitioners and policy makers working on these topics. This project was funded by the British Academy.


1.2. Summary This submission is based on my own research and 20 years working in the fields of mass atrocity prevention, R2P, and human protection. It speaks to several questions raised by the Committee’s terms of reference. The evidence identifies the urgent need for a cross-government National Atrocity Prevention Strategy; addresses why atrocity prevention must incorporate elements from related agendas, such as conflict prevention, the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative; supports arguments that atrocity prevention must specifically avoid working in silos within and beyond the FCDO; supports calls for far greater UK diplomatic engagement on atrocity prevention at multilateral level, including in relation to the Responsibility to Protect; shares lessons learned in atrocity prevention from contexts where the commission of future atrocities was avoided; and identifies the need for training, expertise-sharing and funding on atrocity prevention.


2. The need for a National Atrocity Prevention Strategy in the UK


2.1. Atrocity prevention is one of the most urgent and demanding global challenges of our times. In 2021, we witnessed atrocity crimes fuelling crises across the world, from Myanmar to Syria, Yemen, Xinjiang in China and Tigray in Ethiopia.[1] Such crimes generate massive human suffering, with enormous global impact. Mass atrocities not only cause immediate and severe harm. They can cause enduring adverse effects on social, political, economic, and cultural development. The multi-generational impacts of gross violations of human rights are increasingly recognised as one of the main obstacles to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the target date of 2030.


2.2. Studies looking at atrocity crimes committed since 1900 suggest an average onset of nearly two mass atrocities per year since 1900, on all continents except Antarctica.[2] No region is immune from the risks of mass atrocity crimes. Mass atrocities amount to large-scale violence targeting unarmed populations in times of war or peace. They can occur in conflict situations, such as in Syria and Yemen, or in the absence of conflict, as seen in North Korea or China. This aspect underscores the important distinction between conflict prevention and atrocity prevention as related but necessarily distinct Government policies, as two elements in a broader strategy towards ensuring resources are allocated to the prevention of atrocities worldwide.


2.3. While the burden of protection from, and prevention of, atrocity crimes should be shared globally, a UK that is aspiring to global leadership and has special responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council needs to commit to fulfilling its global commitments towards a secure world. The risk of atrocity crimes or their commission in remote areas of the world disturb the peace and security of the international system, thus reiterating the need for UK to take action to prevent atrocities.[3]


2.4. A National Atrocity Prevention Strategy in the UK should clearly set out mechanisms available both externally and across the Government to monitor risk factors and imminent warning signs.[4] It should incorporate analysis guidelines for intelligence collection and investigation, explicit procedures set in place for information-sharing on atrocity prevention across various departments within the Government, as well as designated channels for reporting on findings and for reaching the right “atrocity prevention seats” at the policy-making table. Institutionalisation in this context becomes a key element for cross-Government coordination of work related to analysis, prediction, and decision-making on atrocity prevention.  


3. The gendered nature of atrocity crimes


3.1. The central tenet of the international Responsibility to Protect (R2P) agenda is the prevention of mass atrocities, which covers four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Atrocity crimes have a gendered impact and perspective.[5] Several annual reports of the United Nations Secretary-General on R2P have recognised that genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity affect men and women and girls and boys differently.[6] As such, the gendered nature of atrocity crimes needs to be incorporated in any UK approach to atrocity prevention.  


3.2. Given intersectionality implications and the overlaps between some Government agendas that are tackled as separate policies, such as conflict prevention, the Women, Peace and Security agenda, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, the Protection of Civilians agenda, intersectional feminist approaches to foreign policy need to be considered in parallel to the gendered nature of atrocities when committing to a National Atrocity Prevention Strategy. For instance, UK’s current efforts to prevent sexual and gender-based violence in conflict are not the same as applying a gendered-lens to the prevention of atrocities agenda. Examples of what a more gender-sensitive framework of atrocity prevention would look like across the Government would contribute towards breaking the current tendency to treat these separate but complementary agendas in silos. The prevention of atrocities thus needs to be approached as an intersecting agenda, but also elevated to an institutionalised priority agenda alongside existing policies related to conflict prevention, development, democracy, and human rights promotion.


4. The UK’s engagement with atrocity prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at multilateral level


4.1. The UK’s role in the world is related to the position it takes on matters related to the maintenance of international peace and security in multilateral fora. The UK could take a stance towards atrocity prevention at the UN in the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council or the Security Council. The UK’s projection of global leadership and perception as a role-model in the world when it comes to addressing risks and situations of mass violence are closely linked to its position as one of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. Atrocity prevention “is therefore a vital function for any British government.”[7] And yet, studies have shown how the UK can do much more to fulfil the government’s Responsibility to Protect and act towards atrocity prevention, and to match the commitments it makes at multilateral level with the practical implementation of an integrated strategy on prevention of, and protection from, atrocities.[8]


4.2. Apart from its leverage as a permanent member of the Security Council and pen-holder on key agendas (e.g. Myanmar and Yemen), the UK could also work closely with elected members of the Security Council, who are at times better placed to respond to particular instances of atrocities, given their regional awareness and influence. Their voices have been ignored in the past when it came to implementing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and atrocity prevention agendas, as was the case with Brazil or South Africa in 2011, following Security Council deliberations around the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Because of the distrust of the Western states on the Security Council with respect to the use of force in Libya, elected members of the Council, such as Brazil, designed their own Responsibility While Protecting (RWP) initiative in 2011 to address the problems with implementing R2P in Libya.[9] UK’s engagement with elected members on the Security Council could herald its global outlook. 


5. Where atrocity prevention has worked


5.1. Lessons learned in atrocity prevention from instances where future atrocities were averted are important for the UN system overall but also for the UK to understand potential venues and methods for engaging in global, regional and national preventative efforts. Guinea is one of the least known cases of effective atrocity prevention, however an example that showcases the importance of consistency and coordination in adopting specific measures aimed at atrocity prevention.[10]


5.2. After the 2009 stadium massacre in Conakry,[11] various efforts to prevent further violence and atrocity crimes from being committed encompassed a combination of individual states’ responses (e.g. France and the US), in addition to sub-regional (e.g. ECOWAS),  regional (e.g. African Union, European Union) and international (United Nations) preventive diplomacy. The coordination between various actors translated into a coherent political strategy among international, regional, sub-regional actors, and some non-African states with membership in the UN Security Council discharging their global responsibilities to protect. The measures combined a series of encouragement, pressure and support actions. They encompassed preventive diplomacy, targeted sanctions, justice and security sector reforms, and included both measures aimed at combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law. The effectiveness of these efforts, taken together, was facilitated by existing diplomatic links and by the international and regional institutional framework put in place after the 2008 coup in Guinea.[12]


5.3. Elements from what worked in Guinea, post-2009 stadium massacre and also subsequently around election times (more often than not a trigger for violence), could inform the FCDO’s development of atrocity prevention mechanisms, strategies and designated capabilities within relevant Government offices to coordinate on scenario planning and responses in countries around the world where embassy staff or civil society report risks of mass atrocities. The rapid speed with which crimes against humanity were committed during the 2009 stadium massacre in Guinea also shows how important intelligence collection and analysis are, but especially the need to have well-resourced and clearly designated capacity/posts[13] and knowledge already in place within FCDO to assess threats of identity-based violence and risks of mass atrocities.


6. Expertise, training and funding


6.1. Taking advantage of existing expertise on atrocity prevention and collaborating with researchers, academics and civil society organisations working on this in the UK are essential to drafting the cross-government approach to atrocity prevention. The European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P), which is the research centre housed at the University of Leeds in the UK, has not been consulted on how the Responsibility to Protect and atrocity prevention could be implemented in line with the Integrated Review’s commitments to the prevention agenda or with regard to the newly established Conflict Centre, allegedly tasked with addressing such issues of concern. Similarly, the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, which the Protection Approaches coordinates since its establishment in 2017, a network that brings together about 25 UK-based NGOs, research institutions and individual experts working towards the prevention of atrocities around the world has not been consulted on how the Integrated Review’s commitments to atrocity prevention are to be reflected, or are being implemented, in the UK’s approach to atrocity prevention. Enhanced collaboration with civil society and researchers in the UK working on atrocity prevention is needed for research-based information-sharing, joint analysis, and further engagement and consultation.

6.2. Training for atrocity prevention for FCDO officials and HMG country teams should include resources that clearly identify analysis and communication mechanisms available to respond to mass violence or imminent risk factors that could trigger atrocities. It should also incorporate examples of effective atrocity prevention from around the world, in addition to failures of acting in time, by underscoring lessons learnt. For instance, for the training sessions that I have provided to Qatari military forces in Doha, Qatar over several years, I always start with the conceptual distinctions between atrocity prevention and conflict prevention, and provide examples for successful and failed attempts at both. I also explain what implementing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in order to avert atrocities would mean to different actors, and how atrocity prevention is always context specific.

6.3. Similarly, during the annual Summer School on Atrocity Prevention in Dubrovnik, Croatia,[14] my training sessions start with the conceptual clarifications of risk factors associated with atrocity crimes, and consider ways to engage with the UN-designed Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes,[15] with a clear discussion of how different actors, ranging from national governments to sub-regional and regional organisations and the United Nations, should engage with it.

Funding for research

6.4. What I notice as a UK academic and also as Co-Director of the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P) housed at the University of Leeds is that more funds for research on atrocity prevention are needed in the UK. Specific resource allocation and research funds for atrocity prevention should be regarded as the foundational stone for triggering any policy changes, which in turn would translate into the system-wide, cross-Government, intersectional National Strategy on Atrocity Prevention that is needed.

6.5. Funds for analysis, research, training, engagement and consultations, as well as recognition of expertise on atrocity prevention that already exists within the UK will maximise the perfect window of opportunity that presents itself a year after setting out the UK's role in the world, the government's vision for Global Britain, and the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development. The cost effectiveness of research should not be missed. In this context. This window of opportunity to integrate atrocity prevention across the UK’s foreign and international development policies and its embassies, and to produce an inclusive, intersectional and comprehensive National Atrocity Prevention Strategy should not be missed.


[1] Cristina G. Stefan, Preventing atrocities: How together we can take on this global challenge”, World Changers: Celebrating Impactful Research, University of Leeds’ Vice-Chancellor’s Essay Collection, November 2021.

[2] Charles Anderton and Jurgen Brauer, “Mass Atrocities and their prevention”, College of the Holy Cross, Faculty Research Series, Paper 19-01, January 2019.

[3] As best captured in the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, Integrating atrocity prevention across UK policy: The need for a national strategy Submission to the Integrated Review, 17 August 2020.

[4] See UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, Integrating atrocity prevention across UK policy, 17 August 2020; and, UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, “Promoting Dialogue and preventing atrocities”, 19 January 2022.

[5] Cristina G. Stefan, “Opportunity for Gendering the Responsibility to Protect Agenda at the United Nations?Global Studies Quarterly 1, pp. 1-13, 20 September 2021.

[6] See for example, paragraph 32 in the United Nations, “Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention: Report of the Secretary-General” A/67/929, 9 July 2013.

[7] The UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, Integrating atrocity prevention across UK policy, 17 August 2020.

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

[9] Cristina G. Stefan, “On non-Western Norm Shapers: Brazil and the Responsibility while ProtectingEuropean Journal of International Security 2 (1), pp. 88-110, 2017.

[10] Cristina G. Stefan, “Lessons in Atrocity Prevention: A Closer Look at Guinea, Journal of International Peacekeeping 24 (3-4), pp. 367- 401, 16 December 2021.

[11] On 28th of September 2009, 157 protesters were killed, at least 1200 were injured, and over 100 women were raped by security forces in a stadium in Conakry, Guinea. This came under the rule of a group of young military officers (junta) who called themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD), and who came to power through a military coup in 2008. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry concluded that the crimes committed by security forces amounted to crimes against humanity.

[12] See Stefan, “Lessons in Atrocity Prevention: A Closer Look at Guinea”, p. 378-380.

[13] Specific posts designated to Atrocity Prevention should have the terminology specifically listed in the job title, and should require sharing intelligence and engaging relevant offices within the FCDO and embassy personnel, as well as working in close collaboration with the UK Focal Point for the Responsibility to Protect.

[14] This Summer School on Atrocity Prevention is an initiative of the former United Nations Special Adviser on The Responsibility to Protect to the UN Secretary-General, Dr Ivan Simonovic, who is currently the Permanent Representative of Croatia to the UN. Dr Simonovic brought together a team of international experts on atrocity prevention (from three continents) to design the training and deliver it on a yearly basis. The teaching on this Atrocity Prevention module brings together students from 4 continents. 

[15] United Nations, Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes: A Tool for Prevention, New York, 2014.