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Mainstreaming Atrocity Prevention

Foreign Policy and Promotion of Human Rights for Atrocity Prevention

November 2022

Over the past three decades, states have responded to the problem of systematic and large-scale atrocities through the development of international laws and norms to prevent and restrain perpetrators. Yet, most states have not developed a coherent national strategy on atrocity prevention that includes a clear directive for foreign policy responses to mass atrocities.

In her culminating briefing paper, 2022-23 Visiting Fellow Cecilia Jacob explains the relationship between human rights protection and atrocity prevention, demonstrating that the promotion and protection of human rights in foreign policy engagements is vital to safeguard populations from future atrocities. The brief also argues that states often subordinate human rights protection to other foreign policy agendas, including security, trade and development cooperation. It makes a case for states to develop foreign policy capacity on atrocity prevention that clearly foregrounds human rights to capture the unique risk factors associated with atrocity violence.

Specifically, the brief advances six key policy considerations for states when formulating a human rights-oriented foreign policy in countries at risk of atrocities. It argues that states should:

  1. Assess patterns of discrimination, internal grievances and internal conflicts to understand how different areas of foreign policy engagement bear on human rights.
  2. Distinguish human rights protection and atrocity early warning from strategies aimed at democracy promotion, governance/institution building, trade, development and security sector reform in countries with medium to high atrocity-risk.
  3. Maintain a range of levers to employ should the situation in a country deteriorate into a high risk/imminent atrocity situation. This includes a willingness to engage politically on evidence of human rights violations.
  4. Employ a phased approach to assessing economic and trade opportunities that emerge as partner states open markets and transition their economies, with measurable benchmarks on human rights and democratic progress that are genuinely inclusive.
  5. Invest in development and institution building in partner countries in ways that include proactive measures to advance human rights protections, challenging the assumption that liberal-style institutions will automatically produce peace and the conditions for human rights.
  6. Ensure that peace processes include marginalised/vulnerable groups. External mediation of peace processes is assumed to feed into peacebuilding outcomes, yet external mediators bring their own instrumental interest to the negotiations and have the capacity to change the balance of power among conflicting parties within states. These can have important outcomes for human rights protection should negotiations favour dominant parties responsible for human rights violations.

To show the importance of these six considerations, the brief investigates the foreign policy responses of actors including the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and Australia in three cases where widespread atrocities have recently occurred: Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ukraine. These cases show that the absence of a dedicated atrocity prevention foreign policy strategy has contributed to consistently poor responses to mass atrocities. Where actors have demonstrated political will and coordinated planning, they have been more successful in mobilising swift action with protection outcomes.

The brief concludes by presenting three key recommendations:

  1. States should make atrocity prevention a clear foreign policy priority by developing a national strategy and action plan on atrocity prevention.
  2. States must foreground human rights in foreign policy strategies on atrocity prevention.
  3. Investment in international partnerships and cooperation mechanisms on atrocity prevention should complement the development of a national atrocity prevention strategy and foreign policy capabilities.

Read the full brief and recommendations here.

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