International Rescue Committee-UK submission to the International Development Committee’s inquiry into “Promoting dialogue and preventing atrocities: the UK Government approach”



January 2022



















  1. Introduction

1.1 The International Rescue Committee (IRC) welcomes the decision of the International Development Committee (IDC) to conduct an inquiry into Government policy on atrocity prevention.

1.2 The International Rescue Committee is a humanitarian organisation operational in many of the most severe humanitarian emergencies where our clients can be survivors of violations and atrocities, working with families who have fled atrocities in Syria, in Bangladesh and Myanmar, in South Sudan, DRC and Ethiopia.

1.3 The IRC works in conflict-affected and fragile countries around the world to deliver life-saving assistance to people affected by war, disaster and climate change and remains working with communities to assist with rebuilding through the post-crisis phase. Our presence in some 40 countries in education, health, protection, environmental health, women’s protection and empowerment, and economic recovery programming provides us with an expert understanding of humanitarian and development challenges in contexts of conflict and fragility.

1.4 We are deeply concerned with the issue of atrocity prevention, and how it links to the less visible and primarily under-reported infractions of international humanitarian law (IHL) that we encounter in our operations. These include attacks on civilians, aid workers and aid provision, the denial of humanitarian aid and access, and sexual violence in armed conflict. These violations of IHL are often ‘red flags’ to potential atrocities, and therefore responding to them and ensuring accountability for any violations is committed is critical in overall atrocity prevention efforts.

1.5 Tackling and addressing IHL violations, and the broader atrocity prevention agenda, will also benefit the Government's other priorities such as the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) campaign, as well as other strands of work on civilian protection, religious and media freedom.

1.6 The IRC recommends the UK Government takes action across both the domestic and global level to prevent and respond to IHL violations, and contribute to wider atrocity prevention efforts.


1.6.1 Support for international accountability initiativesThe UK Government should provide financial and technical resources and diplomatic support for multilateral mechanisms that monitor violations of IHL.


1.6.2 Support the suspension of the atrocity prevention veto at the U.N. Security Council in               cases of mass atrocities in order to overcome the Council’s paralysis on this.


1.6.3 Use the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute those committing egregious               abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.


1.6.4 Support the establishment of an Organisation for the Protection of Humanitarian Access

to bring new status and force to exposing the strangulation and weaponization of humanitarian





1.6.5 Deliver on the UK’s Protection of Civilian Strategy’s commitment on accountability to tackle IHL.


1.6.6 Increase aid funding - not just to fragile and conflict affected states, but also specifically to protection programming and access to justice programmes


1.6.7 Establish a holistic, and integrated conflict framework that brings both development and               diplomatic tools of how to respond to violence in conflict settings.


1.6.8 Strengthen long-term, cross Whitehall strategic coordination by reviving the NSC.



  1. Key trends in conflict and fragile settings


2.1 The IRC is concerned to see a growing trend of violations of IHL that are becoming more frequent in conflict contexts, and for which international outrage and response in the form of accountability is limited.


2.2 Parties to conflict in conflict zones increasingly and openly violate international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions. We’ve seen Russian air power target civilian infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, and water pipelines, in Syria; Saudi bombing of school buses, Houthis attacking civilian areas, and all sides in Yemen blocking medicine and food from reaching people in need; and Boko Haram kidnap and murder humanitarian workers attempting to deliver aid in Nigeria. The IRC refers to this challenging period as the ‘Age of Impunity.


2.3 We are particularly concerned about the trends we are seeing across four areas:


2.3.1 Attacks on civilians. Today, 70% of the victims of war are civilians and 85% of armed               conflict takes place in population centres, putting civilians at greater risk than ever. For example,               civilians are often targeted in DRC, and with intercommunal tensions, resource conflict and               impending political disputes, this trend is likely to continue. Between Jan – Oct 2021, UNHCR               recorded 1,200 civilian deaths and 1,100 rapes in just two provinces. As a result, 1.9 million               people were displaced, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons to 5.6 million.


2.3.2 Sexual violence. In times of conflict, many forms of gender-based violence (GBV) rates increase as tensions rise, and the use of violence can become normalised. 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women have been subjected to sexual violence, which would amount to over 14 million women worldwide. Sexual violence is not an uncommon tactic of war. For example, conflict-related sexual violence has been a common occurrence throughout Myanmar’s recent phases of conflict, but particularly during the 2017 mass violence against the Rohingya where the UN fact-finding mission found that “intentional, frequent and systematic directed attacks against the civilian population... including through killings, torture and sexual violence”.

2.3.3 Attacks on aid workers and aid provision. The targeting, kidnapping, and killing of aid workers is prohibited under the Geneva Convention and may amount to a crime against humanity or a war crime. Yet today an average of 120 aid workers are killed each year – more than double the average 15 years ago. Attacks on aid workers, including a rise in attacks on national staff, in humanitarian crises has increased by an average of 11 percent in the last five years. At the same time, attacks on civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals are increasingly common. For example in Syria, the IRC have seen at least 595 attacks on more than 350 health facilities across the country. [1]


2.3.4 The denial of humanitarian aid and access. Related to direct attacks on aid workers, the denial of access and disruption of humanitarian aid is also a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention and can be a war crime. The number of countries with the highest level of access constraints more than doubled in 2021 relative to the year before. The IRC are concerned that the restrictions on aid are increasingly seen as normal, and do not attract the international outrage as some of the other violations of international humanitarian law. Yet they cause great suffering to many families living in conflict. For example, humanitarian access in Somalia has deteriorated in 2021 as needs continue to rise. Attacks by al-Shabab—sometimes targeted at humanitarians—inter-clan conflict, administrative and bureaucratic barriers, and poor infrastructure are all factors in limiting access and movement of humanitarians across the country, hampering efforts to serve the 7.7 million Somalis in need.


2.4 The figures for the rise in IHL violations are likely to be on the lower scale due to the difficulties of monitoring and gathering evidence in areas of live conflict and instability. In particular, all forms of gender-based violence are difficult to measure given the added sensitivities and entrenched inequalities. Furthermore, gender-based violence remains severely under-reported due to a multitude of reasons; these include lack of services for survivors of gender-based violence, risk of backlash or further violence upon reporting, and limited opportunities for access to justice through formal mechanisms. 


  1. Key factors driving the trends in conflict and fragile settings


3.1 The IRC’s annual flagship report, ‘Watchlist’, looks at the state of the world om 2022 and outlines for key factors for these trends. [2]


3.2 The first is state failure. More states are failing to fulfill their basic responsibilities toward their citizens and increasing numbers of governments are making things worse through sins of commission, not just omission.

3.3. The second is diplomatic failure. We are seeing peacemaking in retreat, geopolitical rivalry on the rise, and non-state armed groups hold increasing sway. The system of international law, with rights for citizens and responsibilities for states, is in retreat, with growing crimes occurring without accountability.


3.4 The fourth is operational failure. The system of humanitarian aid, which exists to fill the gaps created by state, legal and diplomatic failure, depends, access, funding, and global cooperation. But the system has been overwhelmed by economic, social and political breakdown.

3.5 The IRC views all four of these failures as fundamental features of the global system that is creating challenging conditions for preventing and responding to violations of international law. In particular, we view three key drivers that are contributing to the four failures identified.

3.5.1 Mid-level powers want to assert themselves militarily and are increasingly free to do so. This shift is contributing to the rise of internationalised civil conflicts. These interventions are not positive efforts; rather, they contribute destructive support for various factions within conflicts. And in many cases, there are multiple external actors involved. Intervening states, and any parties they support on the ground, pay lower costs, not only increasing their capacity to continue the conflict but also decreasing their incentives to pursue peace. Agreements therefore are harder to reach and less likely to survive. It is no coincidence that the rise of internationalised civil conflicts has coincided with longer wars.

3.5.2 States increasingly try to disrupt the international system, which they see as a threat to their interests. This trend is most evident at the U.N. Security Council. The Council’s five permanent members (P5) are increasingly willing to deploy their vetoes to prevent action on conflicts where they have an interest.

3.5.3 At the same time non-state actors have growing influence. Across the countries listed in Watchlist, it is often non-state actors—some backed by states —that play a central role in the conflicts that are driving humanitarian crises. But it is not just “traditional” armed opposition groups of the kind fighting in Yemen, Syria and Myanmar. In Haiti and Honduras, criminal gangs—some transnational—can often out-gun state security forces. In the Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, we see the rise of both transnational jihadist groups and community “self-defense” militias. Similarly, private military contractors are influential actors in both the Central African Republic and Mozambique. This proliferation of armed actors contributes to the lawlessness of war, and it also presents fundamental questions for an international system designed to regulate relations between states.


  1. Crisis example: Yemen

4.1   Yemen is a case study of the cumulative impact of protracted conflict, which has progressively destroyed livelihoods and critical systems over the six years since the Saudi-led Coalition (SELC) intervened to support Yemeni Government.  And the conflict will persist in 2022 given the lack of diplomatic progress, as the recent attacks which led to high numbers of civilians being injured and killed have demonstrated.


4.2   IRC’s ability as humanitarians to address the needs of Yemeni people will continue to be limited by restrictions on humanitarian access, imposed by all sides to the conflict. In the Houthi-controlled areas in the north, where around 70% of Yemenis live, the key concerns relate to bureaucratic impediments, such as months-long delays to receive permission to implement projects, as well as demands for information about clients of projects. And in the south, the proliferation of actors and lack of central power has fed insecurity that regularly disrupts humanitarian activities. For example, 2021 saw multiple incidents where humanitarian vehicles were hijacked—including two IRC vehicles. 

4.3   The lack of accountability continues. The mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), a UN Human Rights Council body mandated to monitor and report on violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law in Yemen, was not renewed following a UN HRC vote in October 2021 following intense lobbying by the KSA, means the investigative mechanism is now being dissolved.  

4.4   The danger of course is as armed conflict continues to escalate this year and spread to new areas, the void in accountability mechanisms for violations in Yemen leaves warring parties the space to continue to act with impunity. This lack of enforcement for IHL will serve to both increase humanitarian needs, and undermine the response to them.  


  1. Recommendations for UK Government

5.1 As HMG’s 2019 Atrocity Prevention Approach paper stated: If left unchecked, human rights abuses and other violations can be a first step towards mass atrocities”. Therefore, ensuring Government takes action to respond to IHL violations during armed conflict should be a key part of its agenda to tackle atrocity prevention.

5.2   On the global level, the UK Government should:

5.2.1         Support international accountability initiatives. HMG can provide financial and technical resources and diplomatic support for multilateral mechanisms that monitor violations of IHL. Examples include the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism, which helps investigate and prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in Syria, and the now-defunct Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. 

5.2.2         Support the suspension of the atrocity prevention veto. The UK has not used its veto since 1989, but nevertheless has an important role to play in galvanising support for this initiative. As the Council’s credibility and international standing in humanitarian crises has been compromised by its failure to act on the most serious violations of international humanitarian law.  There are currently over 100 member states have already endorsed the proposal put forward by France, which calls on the five permanent members of the Council to voluntarily refrain from using their veto power in cases of mass atrocities. 

5.2.3         Use the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute those committing egregious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. It is welcome that the UK and other states have spoken up against perpetrators of mass atrocities, even as the international system has failed to follow through with meaningful accountability. However, more effort is needed to strengthen accountability for violations of IHL – and now is the time to follow through with bilateral action to fill in the gaps in accountability caused by limitations of international courts. There have been laudable examples, including cases in Germany on war crimes committed in Syria. But these efforts have been limited and have lacked the coordination necessary to attract global attention and create significant reputational and financial costs to perpetrators.  To this end, the UK could further bolster its own war crimes team based within the Metropolitan Policy Counter Terrorism Command section, who are responsible for the investigation of all allegations of war crimes. 

5.2.4         Support the establishment of an Organisation for the Protection of Humanitarian Access to bring new status and force to exposing the strangulation and weaponization of humanitarian aid.  Humanitarian access has for too long been treated as an optional extra, rather than an obligation under international humanitarian law. The denial of aid and the collective punishment of communities has become a weapon of choice in modern conflicts which a gridlocked UNSC hasn’t been able to respond to effectively.  The UK’s efforts in highlighting the importance of humanitarian access, and calling for it at the UNSC, is vital. But more is needed to try to depoliticise the humanitarian access constraints in conflicts. The establishment of an independent organization could help guard lifesaving humanitarian work from the politics of member states, including those perpetrating access constraints.  


5.3   On the domestic level, the UK Government should:

5.3.1         Deliver on the Protection of Civilians’ Strategy commitment on accountability. The strategy has a welcome section which encourages greater adherence to IHL, by publishing a ‘Voluntary Report on the Implementation of IHL at Domestic Level.’ Yet no further report has been published since 2019, and by preparing further analysis of HMG behaviour, it would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to IHL and encourage other member states to do the same, as well as strengthen the UK’s hand in call for adherence to, and accountability for, violations of IHL.  

5.3.2         Increase aid funding - not just to fragile and conflict affected states, but also specifically to protection programming and access to justice programmes. The Government has cut humanitarian aid by 40% - these cuts have affected a number of different programmes that the IRC delivers. For example, from the cuts to some of IRC’s programmes in Syria (decreased by 75%), we have seen both our lifesaving assistance and services cut, as well as key staff roles responsible for supporting implementation of front-line services. On the latter, the reduced funding for protection monitoring, and reports targeting marginalised groups (e.g., women, girls) will lead to less evidence for programmatic interventions on those neglected populations. Protection monitoring is key to understanding the implications of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals and for operational agencies such as the IRC to adapt services. Increasing funding to fragile and conflict affected states overall is therefore critical, in particular ensuring that funding toward increasing gender-based violence prevention and responses services, protection monitoring and access to justice.

5.3.3         Establish a holistic, and integrated conflict framework that brings both development and diplomatic tools of how to respond to tackling violence in conflict settings. Having a strong atrocity prevention approach within this framework would also help strengthen Government capacity to respond to violations of IHL, including conflict-related gender-based violence, and wider civilian protection issues.  Underpinning this framework should be a focus on the drivers of conflict, including gender inequality, which exacerbates with conflict. There should also be a focus on conflict resolution and strengthening accountability – all of which will require the UK’s development and diplomatic assets working hand in hand together. It will also require close and strong civil society engagement, ensuring that the Government both in capital and across the globe is regularly engaging with a wide array of groups that can directly feed into analysis as well as locally driven solutions. This must include women’s rights organisations, who have first-hand knowledge of the needs of women and girls in their communities, as well as women peacebuilders.  These are commitments that the UK has made as signatory of the Women, Peace and Security Humanitarian Action Compact. The FCDO’s conflict centre will also have an opportunity to do this in their forthcoming conflict framework, as well as in the department’s International Development Strategy also due to be published soon.

5.3.4         Strengthen long-term, cross Whitehall strategic coordination to ensure that in the midst of a fast-paced external environment, HMG maintains the integrated, long-term strategic thinking function at the heart of Whitehall. One of the key ways of doing this is to revive the National Security Council (NSC) by increasing meetings, and ensuring high level representation and discussion.  The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy recently highlighted [3]that NSC meetings have been reduced by 30%, and that they are concerned about the Prime Minister’s engagement with the Council. Therefore, it will be vital to revive this crucial part of Whitehall machinery to ensure long-term strategic coordination remains at the core of the UK’s global work in conflict and fragile settings.


[1] A Decade of Destruction: Attacks on health care in Syria, 3 March 2021

[2] 2022 Emergency Watchlist, 15 December 2021


[3] Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, 17 December 2021