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Keeping Britain Global: Preventing atrocities

UNA-UK's report, "Keeping Britain Global" makes the case that Britain needs to champion global values, and invest in the health of our international system and makes recommendations across five key areas where we believe the UK can make a useful contribution at a global level, and where we feel Britain’s willingness to take action will provide a fair and appropriate test of Britain’s support for the rules-based international order. This is what we have to say about:

Preventing atrocities

There is no greater test of our international system than its record when it comes to preventing atrocities. Atrocities – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing – demonstrate humanity at its worst. Such acts are abhorrent and the antithesis of the global system of rules and laws upon which we all rely.

The world’s record on preventing atrocities is poor, but over time past failures have produced a set of tools to guide the international community’s response. These tools are collectively known as the “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)”. R2P consists of a series of policies and measures split across three “pillars”. The first pillar outlines a state’s own responsibilities. The second tasks the international community to support the state in meeting these responsibilities. If, however, the state manifestly fails to protect its own civilians, the third pillar is activated: the international community can use peaceful means to encourage action, and if this is unsuccessful, they may resort to the responsible, proportionate and collective use of force to ensure that civilians are protected.

But R2P is rarely about military action. It is about states living up to their obligations towards the helpless victims of war, and global powers like the UK taking a leadership role, in particular at the UN Security Council, to ensure that this happens. It is about adopting sanctions or convening peace talks, or – more fundamentally – about accepting refugees and supporting reform and development to help states protect civilians.

The doctrine of R2P emerged from lobbying led by the global South: the African Union and the governments of Benin and Cameroon. But the UK can be proud of its role in supporting the adoption of the concept in 2005 by publicly endorsing it. Since then, the UK has continued to engage with the principle, for example, by appointing an R2P pointperson within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by indicating support for restraint in the use of the veto by permanent members of the Security Council in atrocity situations, an integral part of making R2P more effective.

Frustratingly, most debate on the subject has concentrated on R2P’s coercive elements. Our research suggests that having enthusiastically cited R2P when backing the use of force in Libya in 2011, the UK now feels that the term is politically problematic and has thus refrained from presenting its work on preventing atrocities in R2P terms. However, such an approach overestimates the extent to which other countries feel the term is tainted; most member states remain deeply committed to improving and enhancing the still emerging doctrine. 52 Security Council resolutions passed since the Libyan intervention have referenced R2P.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the prevention of atrocity crimes is a UK responsibility and warrants greater attention than it has been given in recent years. The UK’s present action on R2P does not meet UN best practice. No NSS/SDSR document has ever mentioned atrocity prevention. The UK needs to overcome its reticence towards R2P and champion responsible action to prevent atrocity crimes. Elevating the role of the R2P focal point to ministerial level would help ensure that this takes place.


The UK should:

  • Declare the prevention of atrocity crimes to be a foreign policy priority and mention R2P in its speeches and Security Council interventions on situations where there is a significant risk of atrocity crimes
  • Strengthen its R2P strategy by ensuring it is coordinated by a ministerial point person with sufficient resources to support best practice
  • Champion the “code of conduct” put forward by the ACT group of countries, whereby UN member states voluntarily agree to not veto action on issues relating to atrocity crimes

Back to Keeping Britain Global.

Read more about our work on preventing atrocities