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Putting atrocity prevention at the heart of British foreign policy

Article by Dr Kate Ferguson

September 8, 2020

Putting atrocity prevention at the heart of British foreign policy

Of today’s major and emerging crises, the vast majority – including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Venezuela, and Xinjiang – are driven, at least in part, by the deliberate violent targeting of civilian groups by political elites. Systematic or widespread discrimination against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, age, disability or class has not become a challenge of the past but a common phenomenon of our modern world. Identity-based violence occurs in some form or another in all societies and as such, its prevention is something needed everywhere all of the time.[1]


When a state fails to protect populations within its own borders from mass atrocity crimes, the responsibility to safeguard groups at risk falls to the international community. The responsibility is at its heart a collective one and as with effective strategies for tackling other global challenges such as the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevention of atrocities requires the efforts of many. It also requires states to adopt the means of upholding in its national policy those collective commitments – but unlike other member states the UK risks falling behind in its contributions.


When we talk about preventing mass atrocities (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing), it is crucial to measure expectations of what outside states can do. At the same time, meeting the raised expectations on and of the international community that reflect our increasingly interconnected world demands an honest look at the gaps that exist between assurances made on the global stage to prevent crises and protect people and how states like the UK implement and integrate those commitments through their national policy. This paper sets out the growing need for the UK government to confront past failures to prevent atrocities, from Bosnia to Iraq to Syria, and embed the principles of prevention and collective responsibility through a clear, capable strategy of atrocity prevention into the heart of British policy.


Whatever the outcome of the Integrated Review and new national security strategy, the UK will need the capabilities and systems to meet the projected increase in identity-based violence, which if left unchecked will emerge as one of the defining crises of the next political era. As COVID-19’s economic and political consequences deepen, climate events become more common, and democratic trends continue to move away from broad-based party politics towards exclusionary alliances, widespread and systematic identity-based violence, including mass atrocities, will become increasingly frequent. The same nexus will drive large-scale population movements, which will continue to drive exclusionary populism in developed and developing democracies.


While not a new challenge, the global incidence of mass atrocity crimes have been rising since 2011.[2] Now COVID-19 and its consequences risks a new protracted escalation.[3] Already, the majority of today’s refugees have fled situations of atrocity while the majority of internally displaced people have been uprooted by consequences of climate change; in 2019, nearly 2,000 natural disasters triggered 24.9 million new displacements.[4]


As a state which aspires to global leadership, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and in the interests of a secure nation, Britain can do more to confront this rising challenge. It must do more to narrow the gaps between the commitments it has made on the global stage on this agenda and their practical implementations.


This is a position shared by the British public. Expectations of the electorate continue to move towards the belief that the UK should stand up for the vulnerable abroad (87.4 per cent) and tackle ‘the root causes of migration, violence and instability’ (86.7 per cent).[5] 66 per cent believe it is important that Britain help protect people in other countries from atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing.[6]


All states must shoulder the burdens of preventing such atrocities and of protecting people from violent discrimination but the collective nature of these responsibilities does not dilute the function of the state as means of fulfilling shared obligations; it underscores it. Secretary General Guterres called in 2017 for member states to integrate atrocity prevention into national policy processes in order to, among other activities, ‘conduct their own atrocity crimes risk assessment, identifying any protection gaps and recommending steps to close them.’[7]


And yet despite growing support from ministers, parliament, atrocity prevention experts, wider civil society and the public, the UK still lacks any kind of coordinating mechanism or national strategy of atrocity prevention.


Following the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine province in late summer 2017, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee asked the Foreign Office to ‘set out what lessons it ha[d] learned regarding atrocity prevention from these events and how these lessons will be applied in Burma and elsewhere in future.’[8] A year later, reflecting upon the UK’s failures in Syria as well as Myanmar, the Committee called upon the government to ‘act urgently to produce a comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy and implementation plan to ensure it moves beyond words and towards concrete actions.’[9] The Committee recommended that a draft of this strategy should be available for consultation by April 2019. Notwithstanding some important if modest steps in the right direction, no such strategy has yet emerged.[10]


The terms of reference of the Integrated Review identifies ‘increasing instability and challenges to global governance’, acknowledging that ‘2019 recorded the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946 and, over the last ten years, more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence.’ Cabinet Office projects that by 2030, 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states. This review must acknowledge that current approaches to conflict, stability and development where they focus too much on firefighting and not enough on prevention are not working.


Recent attention upon the atrocities in Xinjiang and growing debate of what more the UK can do – or should have already done – has once again exposed that the absence of such a strategy contributed to delayed, inconsistent, and ad hoc policy responses to another well-documented and ongoing pattern of widespread systemic discrimination and violence that likely meets the threshold of genocide.[11] Without such a strategy – without applying a framework of how to help prevent future atrocities to the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, Myanmar, Syria, Cameroon or Venezuela – it is too easy to miss opportunities to influence and mitigate.  Once the point of violence has been reached, entry points diminish and lives have already been lost but a joined-up strategy will always help map out UK policy options and provide a process for decision-making.


An atrocity prevention strategy, rooted in a commitment to view policy choices from the perspective of making violence less likely, would help encourage more fluid policymaking better able to handle many of the current and future global catastrophic risks the Integrated Review seeks to address  – be they unexpected ‘unknown unknowns’ such as the coronavirus pandemic, or expected challenges such as climate change. For example, a warmer world will change every aspect of how we live our lives, but it is in the fields of atrocity and conflict prevention that we will likely see the first and most explosive consequences. It is no coincidence that one of the largest and most dangerous regions of fragility at the moment is the Sahel area bordering upon the Sahara desert. Multiple conflicts and atrocity risks  in the region, including those such as Mali or Sudan where the UK has a significant investment, have a climate component.[12]


Introducing a national strategy of atrocity prevention would significantly strengthen UK Government capacity to uphold various responsibilities and commitments it has already made to protect populations from mass atrocities and as articulated in the 2005 World Summit declaration and set out in the 1948 UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.[13] It would enhance UK capabilities to fulfil existing priorities such as the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, modern slavery, organised and serious crime, the protection religious freedom and belief, and of civilians in conflict.


Any such strategy would need to seek do three things:


  1. Improve communication

UK missions play a key role in identifying early warning signs of mass atrocities and, in coordination with Whitehall and their local partners, devising policy options to respond. Interviews with former and current FCO and DFID staff in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo have highlighted gaps that exist between UK officials in the field and Whitehall, which mean that the urgency felt by on-the-ground personnel can be lost as the information is passed up through the bureaucracy to Ministers rather than through a distinct alert channel.[14] Introducing a light-touch internal model of emergency communication, accompanied by clear resources such as checklists and rapid analysis frameworks, would facilitate missions to ‘raise the red flag’ to colleagues back home, clarify tools and strategies already available, and improve joined-up communications during periods of exceptional challenge. Establishing an internal communications process would set out how to monitor imminent warning signs, triggering moments, indicators and risk factors; as well as when and how to raise the alarm – both across government and externally – and provide guidance for officials and ministers on policy options.



  1. Integrate a means of prevention analysis

Whether by establishing a crosscutting analysis unit or integrating country specific frameworks, embedding the prevention systems and capabilities across government would facilitate intelligence collection and collation. It would enable HMG to conduct risk assessments of UK exposure to the possibility of complicity, undertake scenario planning, engage allies and partners, and develop the capacity to deploy civilian advisors to situations of concern. Prevention analysis is relatively low cost and should not be burdensome, although is strengthened when connected with the intelligence services. [15]

Any uplift in the UK’s current capacities would be an asset. Multiple foreign policy errors can be traced back to the absence of a coherent means of analysis focussed on the dynamics of identity-based violence and mass atrocity. No assessment of the atrocity risks were carried out by the UK government prior to its participation in NATO action in Libya, nor was there any obvious existing internal mechanism that would have been responsible for such scenario planning, precisely because the UK’s disconnected approach to conflict prevention and development. Rather than be seen as a time consuming impediment in periods of urgent crisis such analysis need to become integral to the decision-making process. This gap in the UK’s horizon scanning capabilities meant the cross-government Stabilisation Unit failed to include 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.’[16]


  1. Institutionalise the UK’s commitment to prevent atrocities

‘Establishing an atrocity prevention “seat” at the policy-making table’ would help maximise and coordinate contributions towards effective prediction and prevention across Government.[17] This could take the form of the crosscutting prevention analysis unit or be situated in a better resourced office supporting the focal point for Responsibility to Protect, a position currently occupied by the Head of the Multilateral Directorate in the Foreign Office. In reimagining the bureaucratic architecture of FCO and DFID, the Prime Minister and the new FCDO leadership have an opportunity to ensure UK staff tasked with designing and implementing policy that contributes to fulfilling Britain’s responsibilities to help prevent mass atrocities are able to draw upon the full breadth of the government’s tools and expertise.


With identity-based violence rising worldwide, including in many northern democracies, and with indicators of deeper, long-lasting division worsening across Europe and elsewhere, it has become necessary for states such as the UK to also focus on prevention at home in order to protect their populations, including their migrant populations. The UK also needs to get better at prosecuting suspects of international crimes in its domestic courts and safeguarding its banking system from dirty money. Whether situated in the FCDO or Cabinet Office, such a coordinating office would therefore want to bring in departments such as the Home Office and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the MoJ and the Treasury. At its most simple, the principles and practice of atrocity prevention need to be consciously integrated into job descriptions, job titles, and training of staff so that a prevention-first way of thinking is fully institutionalised across government.


The moment to do more

Outgoing Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said as he stepped down from the role in August this year: ‘no society is immune from atrocity crimes and their risk factors, and my conviction that the earlier and the deeper the seeds of atrocity crimes prevention are sowed, the better and more sustainable they will bear fruits.’[18] The COVID-19 pandemic should underline this truism.


Prevention does not necessarily require large resources but foregrounds a different way of thinking and making decisions. When the US Atrocities Prevention Board was first established under the Obama administration it was referred to as a mandate without a budget; done well, atrocity prevention should save money as well as lives.[19] Successful implementation of atrocity prevention requires consistent and constant effort but it works. A recent study projects that ‘a 25% increase in effectiveness of conflict prevention would result in 10 more countries at peace by 2030, 109,000 fewer fatalities over the next decade and savings of over $3.1 trillion.’[20] A 75 per cent improvement in prevention ‘would result in 23 more countries at peace by 2030, resulting in 291,000 lives saved over the next decade and $9.8 trillion in savings.’[21]


Programmatic efforts need to be matched by investment in the British diplomatic corps, recognising that without the diplomatic toolbox, whether cosy or coercive, on-the-ground activity will always have limits. Prevention, whether of climate change or mass atrocities, requires a holistic approach that begins in the communities most affected but promotes system changes up to the highest level.


Doing more to help prevent mass atrocities should not be a contentious agenda. Successive UK governments have reiterated their commitment to the goal. For those concerned with Britain’s declining global influence, atrocity prevention has been identified as a specific contribution capable of ‘demonstrating the value of the United Kingdom in international forums.’[22]


Following its 2018 inquiry into the UK’s Responsibility to Protect, the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that ‘[e]verything we have heard as part of this inquiry has strengthened our belief that an atrocity prevention strategy is now more vital than ever.’ In October that year, then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt committed to ‘doing more’ on atrocity prevention.’[23] During the 2019 general election, all major political parties committed to doing more to prioritise UK contributions to atrocity prevention and Policy Exchange listed an atrocity prevention strategy as one of its eight priorities for the incoming Foreign Secretary.[24] These calls are backed by a growing coalition of organisations drawn from all corners of the UK civil society.[25]


The UK deserves an international policy capable of predicting and preventing crises as well as responding to them, fit to meet challenges it cannot yet foresee as well as those it can. A prevention-first approach to policy thinking saves lives, money and political capital. It should be a no brainer but finding time for prevention thinking and resources for prevention implementation is difficult when the government faces increasing and urgent demands. As the Prime Minister undertakes the ‘largest review of UK international policy since the Cold War’ and as Whitehall makes preparations to merge the FCO with DFID, Her Majesty’s Government has created a rare opportunity to assess what the risks of the future could look like; to develop an international and national security strategy in-line with those risks; and to rethink the systems and capabilities that are needed to prepare the UK to meet those challenges.


Atrocity crimes represent humanity at its worst, preventing them requires global leadership at its best. This is a calling to which the UK should aspire. The UK must take this rare moment of self-reflection of its international policy to learn from mistakes it made in Myanmar –and before it in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bosnia, and Rwanda – and embed a national strategy of atrocity prevention in the heart of British policy.



  • Establish a cross-cutting analysis unit and internal coordination mechanism
  • Resource the office of the focal point for the responsibility to protect
  • Embed a communication and alert channel connecting embassies with Whitehall and New York
  • Mandate atrocity prevention training for embassy and country-desk staff in at-risk states
  • Establish an external atrocity prevention advisory group to help bridge the knowledge gap


Dr Kate Ferguson is a foreign policy expert driving a new approach to preventing identity-based violence in the UK and internationally. In 2014 she co-founded Protection Approaches where she is Co-Executive Director and which works with communities, civil society and governments to transform how identity-based violence is understood and prevented. In 2017 Protection Approaches established and now convenes the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, a network of some 25 NGOs, research institutions and experts. Kate is Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Her book Architectures of Violence: The Command Structures of Modern Atrocities will be published by Hurst and Oxford University Press later this year. She tweets @WordsAreDeeds. Acknowledgements: I’m grateful for comments from Fred Carver, Nicole Piché, Alex Bellamy and Adam Hug. Mistakes are all my own.


Image by DFID under (CC). 


[1] Protection Approaches, Identity-based violence: our definition,

[2] UN News Centre, Interview: Amid increasing suffering, responsibility to protect all the more necessary – UN Special Advisor, March 2017,; For a statistical overview of recent trends, see Erik Melander, Organized Violence in the World 2015, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, January 2015,

[3] Kate Ferguson, Atrocity prevention and COVID-19: Opportunities and Responsibilities, Briefing paper, Protection Approaches, April 2020,; ACLED data,

[4] The top six countries of origin for those granted refugee status in the UK in 1919 were Syria, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, House of Commons Library, “Migration statistics: How many asylum seekers and refugees are there in the UK?”, March 2019, available at: UNHCR currently estimates that 45.7 million are internally displaced.; see also UNHCR, COVID-19, Displacement and Climate Change, June 2020

[5] Attest and Protection Approaches, ‘British society – How do you feel? 2019’, social attitude survey, January 2019

[6] Ibid.

[7] Report of the Secretary-General, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Accountability for Prevention, General Assembly Security Council, August 2017,

[8] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, December 2017,

[9] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, A comprehensive atrocity prevention strategy more vital than ever, says MPs, September 2018,

[10] Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK Approach to Preventing Mass Atrocities, 16 July 2019,  

[11] Kate Ferguson, What Can the UK do to Help Protect the Uyghurs? Adopt a National Strategy of Atrocity Prevention, ECR2P, August 2020,

[12] Fred Carver, As the Sahel becomes Sahara, UNA-UK Climate 2020, September 2017,

[13] UN General Assembly, 2005 World Summit Outcome: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 24 October 2005,; UN General Assembly, Prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, 9 December 1948,

[14] Kate Ferguson, ‘For the wind is in the palm-trees: The 2017 Rohingya atrocities and the UK approach to prevention’, Global Responsibility to Protect, forthcoming 2021; Alexandra Buskie, ‘Strengthening the UK’s approach to atrocity prevention in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Protection Approaches, forthcoming 2020.

[15] Stephen Pomper, Atrocity Prevention Under the Obama Administration, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, February 2018,

[16] 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,

[17] 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, Available at

[18] UN News, Profile: Taking a lead against genocide ‘no society is immune’ warns Adama Dieng, August 2020,

[19] Alex J. Bellamy, Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent, The Stanley Centre, February 2011,

[20] Pathfinders, Forecasting the dividends of conflict prevention from 2020-2030, July 2020,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis and Jason Ralph, Global Britain in the United Nations, UNA-UK, February 2019,

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

[24] Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange, 8 ideas for revitalising UK foreign policy for the post-Brexit age, Policy Exchange, July 2019,; Protection Approaches working group page,, and Protection Approaches’ Manifesto Review, April 2015,

[25]Integrating atrocity prevention across UK policy: The need for a national strategy. Submission to the Integrated Review of International Policy from the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, August 2020

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