Andrew Morris (RAF)
World News /19 Jul 2019

UK Launches a New Policy for the Prevention of Mass Atrocity Crimes

Since the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the United Kingdom has had a leading role in the world in the prevention of so-called atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Britain worked hard mustering support for the first humanitarian intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and soon after that, the country conducted a relatively successful protective military operation in Sierra Leone in 2000. The concern for the safety and wellbeing of global strangers has been a central theme in most of Britain’s global security priorities: prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction, countering of terrorism and spreading democracy. Furthermore, global civilians have had a central role in all UK military operations since the first humanitarian intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo almost exactly twenty years ago.

On the 16th of July 2019, the British government published its new policy on the prevention of atrocity crimes by dictators, terrorists, and conflicting parties. Due to the centrality of the theme this policy paper focuses on, there is a need to take a close look at the document. The fact that recent research has shown that almost all UK military operations to protect civilians globally have ended up killing more than protecting civilians adds to the interest towards this new policy paper: has the government learned something from its previous failures or is it still offering more recipes for failure?

The policy paper “UK approach to preventing mass atrocities” offers four promising new elements to the UK strategy of atrocity prevention that recent critical research of the previous practice supports, but also one element that gives reasons to worry.

The most prominent improvement in the new policy is that the UK government sees atrocity crimes mostly in the context of conflicts. Atrocity crimes are not just, as the name suggests, crimes perpetrated by autocratic or terroristic criminals against innocent victims. Instead, the context of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is more complex. Very often atrocities are committed by both/all parties of a conflict, and often they are a product of escalation of violence. Dealing with atrocity crimes as if they were just opportunistic, one-sided violations of mutually agreed norms often just escalate conflict. While some of the soldiers that jumped to the rebel side in Sierra Leone, took control of resource-rich areas and filled their pockets with diamonds may have been simply opportunistic criminals, most fighters that violate the humanitarian norms on atrocity crimes are not. Treating religious fanatics, or nationalistic autocrats as opportunistic criminals simply provokes violence and escalates conflicts: military interference by “infidels” and “imperialists” is seen as a proof of the justification of the struggle for faith or a nation. Thus, it is good that the framing of atrocity crimes is more realistic in the new policy paper.

Secondly, it is good that the main focus of the policy is in soft, preventive measures that aim at stopping the escalation of conflict violence so that neither side of the conflict needs to step over the boundaries that rules war. The policy focuses on “using diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes and development/programmatic support to address the root causes of conflict.” This way the primary focus will not be on punishing perpetrators of atrocities. In most cases, one would need to punish both sides and thereby simply add to the violence of the conflict. Preventing the escalation of violence already before it spills over into atrocity crimes is much smarter.

(Ralph Merry ABIPP RAF)

The focus on de-escalation is also useful for the consideration of the UK’s own operations. Recent research of the 19 Western military operations that the UK, US, and France have conducted in defence of civilians during the past 20 years, reveal that the number of fatalities in these conflicts is 720% during the first year of humanitarian military operations, compared to the number of fatalities of the previous year. In addition to the spectacular increase in the fatalities of the civilians that the UK wanted to protect, escalation caused by humanitarian interventions has often destroyed the state structures that could later have been used for the controlling of violence and atrocity crimes in the future. Generally, state weakening could be avoided only in cases where the state was already collapsed, and the worsening of state fragility could no longer be measured. Thus, it is important that the new policy focuses on de-escalation and is more sensitive about escalation.

Fourth, the new document focuses on the role of development cooperation and is created in cooperation with the UK government’s development cooperation arm, DFID. This is important especially since the concern of human security of developing countries cannot be seen as a sincere motive of humanitarian interventions if that same concern does not apply to development policies, too. Vastly more lives are lost to poverty and poverty-related diseases and famines, let alone to preventable environmental catastrophes, than to atrocity crimes or even to violence in conflicts that may give rise to such crimes. Even if conflict fatalities would continue at their highest annual levels since the end of the Cold War, it would take 131 years before their accumulated number of fatalities would reach the current average level of fatalities of environmental degradation and hunger in just one year. Consequently, it is, indeed, important for the credibility of the UK policy of prevention of atrocity crimes to demonstrate consistent concern for the wellbeing of the global strangers, and not only use such concern when it justifies military control over territories.

What strikes as problematic in the new UK policy is the relative lack of integration of UK policy to the United Nations framework. Enforcement of humanitarian norms, such as the ones against atrocity crimes, belongs to humanity, and thus the final control of it should lie with the only organization that can claim to represent humanity. The document mentions the United Nations Security Council only as one of the fora of UK diplomacy. However, when the UK acts to protect civilians it works with its own unilateral network, rather than with the global union of nations: “The UK remains an active supporter of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), working with international partners – both states and civil society – to identify situations where the risk of atrocities is growing and find ways to forestall violence using the tools outlined above” [including military deployment]. The decision-making modalities in the United Nations Security Council are difficult for the UK approach to the responsibility to protect. Two veto powers, Russia and China, often judge that the likelihood of positive outcome for the safety of civilians is very low in protective military operations. As a result, the UN is often unable to act when the UK government feels atrocity crimes should be punished. At the same time lessons from the previous operations should discourage the UK from resorting to arms too hastily.

Unilateral operations of protection are even less likely to end up well for the targets of protection. First, the perpetrators that the British government would like to punish for atrocities, often get added perceived legitimacy for their violence from military operations by outsiders. Furthermore, they often see external protection of a group of people in their countries as proof of their conspiracy with foreign powers. Thus, unilateral intervention often gives rise to the invigoration of resistance and violence on the opposing side. Furthermore, if the UK may identify with its like-minded nations when to deploy military force to protect people, it will be difficult to avoid the temptation to do it in a selfish manner. A recent study shows that even the national justification of international protective operations often requires an emphasis on national benefits of the operation. Thus, protection that side-lines the UN easily gets contaminated with selfish interests.

In conclusion, it seems clear that the new UK policy shows a lot of promise. It is a soft version of the previous militaristic approach. Yet, the policy should be better integrated into the UN system. Britain has promised this in its acceptance of the UN General Assembly’s Resolution on the Responsibility to Protect on 16 September 2005. Even if a closer integration of the UK policy with the UN means that the UK will protect civilians from atrocity crimes less often, it would hopefully also mean that atrocity crimes would not justify counter-productive, destructive, and sometimes selfish military adventures in the future.

If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via