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International Development Committee

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Sarah Champion will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call Sarah Champion to respond to them in turn. May I emphasise that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair, not to the relevant Minister, and that interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front-Bench Members may take part in questioning should they wish to do so.

I welcome this opportunity to make a Select Committee statement marking today’s publication of the Government’s response to the International Development Committee’s inquiry and report on atrocity prevention. I would like to thank the Committee Members, staff and specialist advisers, and all who gave evidence.

Next week we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The horror, loss and trauma of Nazi genocide and crimes against humanity are still felt by survivors, descendants and communities today. But mass atrocities have not been relegated to history. We see these horrors in Ukraine today, where Putin’s indiscriminate bombing subjects civilians to endless misery, death and destruction—appalling crimes that we all condemn.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina last year, my Committee met organisations still grappling with the hurt and havoc wreaked by the genocide and crimes against humanity more than 25 years ago. But right now, while the media sometimes forget, the same horrors are being played out in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, China and Myanmar, for example. The promise, made in the wake of the holocaust, of “Never again” has been broken again and again. Genocide and crimes against humanity are never inevitable, and they can often be prevented. To do so, however, we need to be prepared, we need to co-ordinate, we need resources, and we need political will.

As a flourishing democracy, major economy and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the UK has a particular power to act. That is why my Committee decided to launch an inquiry into whether the UK is doing all it can to prevent mass atrocities. The subsequent invasion of Ukraine, which occurred only a few months after the launch of our inquiry, underlines the urgency of this work. Although multilateral institutions have a fundamental role to play, our inquiry went beyond the UK’s work in bodies such as the United Nations. We must recognise that Russia and China both wield their veto power to provide cover for their own crimes and to block responses elsewhere. But the deadlock that this forces at the Security Council should not inhibit our own national policy.

The Committee asked whether the UK was using the full range of its own tools to prevent bloodshed. Our primary interest was in the peaceful steps that can prevent violence or de-escalate it at the earliest stages. Our inquiry heard from UK ambassadors, civil society organisations, lawyers and academics, all with a stake in preventing and ending atrocities. I thank them all for their input and for their patient work over the years, acting as a force for peace.

Our inquiry found that, over the last year, there has been a transformation in how the Government address these issues. Spurred on by the integrated review of 2021, the commitment by many in this House and the dogged work of civil society, there is now a new team at the heart of Government: a mass atrocity prevention hub. I am proud to say that the Committee’s inquiry has driven further welcome changes. The Government now recognise atrocity prevention as a distinct objective across Government, deserving attention in its own right. They now accept that mass atrocities can occur outside of conflict as well as within them, meaning that they will have to prioritise the plight of populations in Xinjiang and North Korea as well as those in Syria and Ethiopia.

Following our inquiry, the Government are now reviewing the training and resources they offer our diplomats, to ensure that our embassies can spot and act on the early warning signs of identity-based persecution and violence. Our diplomats often instinctively know when things go awry, but without access to proper mandatory training or detailed policy, they have sometimes been left high and dry. I acknowledge and thank the Government for these commitments. They signal that the UK may be moving towards a new, more cost-effective model of foreign policy, which addresses atrocity prevention more consistently. This model needs to develop civil servants’ capacity and skills, to pursue this goal across Government, making the best use of British diplomacy and aid programming to save lives.

Prevention is infinitely less resource-intensive than responding to the consequences of inaction. However, given these positive steps, I question why the Government decided not to accept the central recommendation of my Committee: namely, to adopt a national strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. Without a strategy, I struggle to see how the Government will measure whether their efforts stack up and deliver real change for those at risk. I fear that, once again, individuals and communities will fall through the cracks of UK policy. They are the ones who will pay the ultimate price.

Of course, the UK cannot and should not seek to shoulder responsibility alone, but it must be strategic. A new model requires a plan that extends to the whole of Government.

It requires dedicated budget lines, whether within the sanctions team, in key embassies, or within the conflict, stability and security fund. Most of all, this emerging model needs political leadership. Acting to prevent mass atrocities must be part of our national security decisions. We must use the latest intelligence to prevent and prepare.

All relevant Ministers must be around the table. I want to see the Minister for Development sitting on the National Security Council, advising on how to use aid programmes to tackle the root causes of atrocities. I want to see the Minister for Security prioritising this issue, safeguarding our shores from the products and influence of countries that persecute their own citizens. I want to see the Minister with responsibility for South Asia and the Commonwealth ensuring that the Government are inclusive and remembering that sustainable and equitable peace centres on the needs of marginalised groups. I want to see the Home Secretary ensuring that our asylum and immigration policies match our commitments to honour the lessons of the holocaust and stand with those fleeing atrocity crimes today.

Let me pause here to underline the importance of our report for our domestic Departments. It is a mistake to think that this phenomenon of identity-based discrimination and violence exists only in some parts of the world and not here in the UK. It is a mistake to think that our obligation to confront mass atrocities begins and ends with our international policy.

One of the easiest things we can do is to provide sanctuary to those fleeing genocide, crimes against humanity, persecution and conflict. Easier still is to avoid demonising and dehumanising the men, women and children seeking safety. Preventing these crimes requires consistency and ethical leadership, and I hope the Home Secretary reflects and acts on this, as how we act now will determine our place in the world for generations to come. It will also shape the dangers we face.

Over many years, the world watched as Syrians were subjected to horrific violence, bombardment of hospitals and civilian areas, and mass graves. We are in denial if we do not see how this paved the way for Putin’s crimes in Ukraine today. We know that the perpetrators of atrocity learn directly from one another, yet those of us who stand against atrocities have often failed to do the same.

Mass-atrocity crimes are not restricted to certain parts of the world. The war in Ukraine reminds us that Europe is not immune to these horrors. Worrying tensions have returned to the western Balkans, despite the call to action that the Srebrenica genocide should have provided. Climate change, new technologies and dangers to democracy only threaten to worsen the atrocity risk that the world faces, so do not think such crimes cannot happen here.

The Government will release an update to the 2012 integrated review in the coming months. and I urge Ministers to centre atrocity prevention within that update. It must set out how atrocity risks will be mitigated across Government, from trade, exports and supply chains to asylum and border policies. We need to see a cross-Government strategy on atrocity prevention. I fully support the Foreign Secretary’s belief that the goal of foreign policy is to make a difference, not just to comment. Our report, which I proudly commend to the House, provides a plan for how to do just that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her Committee’s excellent report and for her personal commitment to this issue, as evidenced by her powerful speech today.

The Government have a manifesto commitment to implement the Truro review, including recommendation 7 on

“setting up early warning mechanisms to identify countries at risk of atrocities, diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes, and developing support to help with upstream prevention work.”

Does the hon. Lady agree that adopting the road map outlined in her Committee’s report would not only fulfil this recommendation but would mean that, when we say “never again” on Holocaust Memorial Day next week, the Government can match their words with concrete action?

I fully support the hon. Lady’s comments. She has been a leader in trying to highlight and prevent the persecution of religious groups around the world. She has done a sterling job.

Early warning is key. We have seen that very simple steps lead to the de-escalation of violence, and this Government have an opportunity, if they use the hon. Lady’s report and the Committee’s report, to make a real difference by preventing these crimes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for raising this issue so consistently. What could be more important in our foreign policy than working to prevent mass atrocity?

The UN reports that the M23 armed group killed at least 133 unarmed villagers and raped at least 22 women over just two days last November. A separate UN report alleges that Rwandan armed forces provided material support to M23. The US, France and Germany have all publicly recognised these horrifying findings and have spoken out, but our Government have failed to do so. Does my hon. Friend agree that a consistent approach to atrocity prevention requires the Government to start recognising and telling what will be, for them, uncomfortable truths?

I have been appalled at what is happening to the Congolese people. The main point of our report is that there is a national strategy. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned recommendation 7 of the Truro report, which says the strategy must be “legal not political.” It is shocking that the UK Government have not called out what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I am keen that the Committee looks into this further.

This is a remarkable report, and the hon. Lady should be commended for her leadership in this matter. I wonder whether we should be pressing the Government to do more in critical areas. I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Magnitsky sanctions, and we are dragging our feet on sanctioning the architects and perpetrators of abuse in many parts of the world, particularly China. We have sanctioned fewer people in China than most countries have, certainly far fewer than the USA has, and we still do not recognise that there is a genocide taking place in Xinjiang, where rape is used as a weapon of that genocide. Would she like to comment on that?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his leadership on this topic. What is happening in Xinjiang would now fall within the Government’s remit because they have acknowledged that atrocities not only happen in conflict. One of our central asks is that atrocity prevention goes across Government so that this country uses every tool and speaks with one voice. I hope the Government grasp this opportunity to step up and be a world leader on atrocity prevention.

I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her statement. She talks about the need for cogent and effective early-warning mechanisms, and I could not agree more. Sadly, around the world there are too many instances of genocide and crimes against humanity to draw on. Reflecting on where we are in Europe, we seek never to forget the holocaust and to ensure that it never happens again, yet it was only in the 1990s that those same practices happened again. It was bizarre to observe those horrific scenes on colour television, with the victims wearing Nike clothing. When we visit Bosnia and Herzegovina, we see that all too clearly.

What does the hon. Lady think these early-warning systems might do to the increased temperature of the tension and conflict in Republika Srpska? How can the European continent, and the wider world, protect the people of Bosnia by addressing what is bubbling up before our eyes in Republika Srpska?

I congratulate Members on both sides of the House who began raising these regional issues nine months ago. The Government listened, and I know our diplomats over there have been instrumental in trying to de-escalate the tensions in that region. If we do not do that, it will literally wash up on our shores. This presents a major security risk to Europe and to this country, so I urge the Government to keep up those talks and to keep making it clear what the consequences will be for people who promote such violence.

I thank the hon. Lady for her Committee’s outstanding report. I commend all the Committee members who helped to produce it.

Is the hon. Lady aware that we have condemned all violence and all violent groups in the DRC and Kivu? I have spoken to the Foreign Ministers of both Rwanda and the DRC to urge them to end the violence and to support the Nairobi peace accord, to which the British taxpayer is contributing £500,000 to help move the process along.

Yes, I am aware that the Government have condemned the violence in the DRC. One of my concerns is that we perhaps need stronger and more public words, as the Rwandan Government seem to be involved in this escalation.

The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the International Development Committee’s report, “From Srebenica to a Safer Tomorrow”. The all-party group on Bosnia and Herzegovina hosted a former president of Bosnia last year. The former president praised the work of the UK 20 years ago, and in particular that of the late Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon as UN high representative. But now we see the separatist president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, refer to “our Serbia” and “our Russia” in the same breath. Does the hon. Member think that the Government’s decision not to accept the report’s recommendation that the Government introduce a cross-departmental strategy for preventing and responding to mass atrocities takes account of some of this worrying rhetoric that we are seeing from Republika Srpska?

I thank the hon. Member for his comments. The Committee went out to Bosnia—to Mostar. We were genuinely shocked by the palpable tension on the streets and the deliberately inflammatory language and policies that are coming out of Dodik and others. The ambassador at the time and the current ambassador have been working incredibly hard to highlight this, but we need to do more. We need an international condemnation of what is going on over there otherwise it will replicate itself.

This is an important report and I associate myself with the words of the Chair of the Committee regarding the witnesses and the staff members who have worked on this. Does my good friend, the Chair of the International Development Committee, agree that preventing mass atrocities not only is a moral imperative, but delivers wide-ranging security benefits for Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend and Committee member for his question. Absolutely, obviously, it is the right thing for us to do morally, but early intervention preventing this has wide-ranging benefits for our national security. People do not realise that terrorist groups are looking to radicalise the unrest that is happening. We are looking at the murder, which leads to refugees and asylum seekers coming to this country, making it impossible for them to go back home again. So, absolutely, early intervention and prevention has to be both morally, economically and in terms of human cost the best thing to do.