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Monday 17 August 2020

Atrocity prevention needs to be at the centre of UK strategy

The UK Government is currently carrying out an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Read more about the review, and how to submit evidence, here. The deadline for submissions is Friday 11 September 2020.

Syria Solidarity UK was pleased to contribute to a joint submission to the review by members of the Atrocity Prevention Working Group. Read the full submission (PDF).

Why should UK national strategy focus on atrocity prevention?

The core aim of UK defence and security strategy is to preserve the security and prosperity of the population of the UK and its citizens abroad. An effective defence and security strategy requires that atrocity prevention be included at its centre as an essential part of achieving this aim.

States and non state groups that enable, foment, or carry out mass atrocities are leading threats to UK security and prosperity. Their actions are not contained by borders. Not only do mass atrocities drive mass forced displacement, but attacks on personal security, social cohesion and rule of law in one state repeatedly come to undermine personal security, social cohesion, and rule of law internationally. States and non state groups involved in mass atrocities have an interest in undermining rule of law worldwide in order to maintain impunity and power, whether through attacks on international institutions by such states or through terror acts by such non state groups. The deliberate exporting of disinformation and the strategic exporting of corrupt practices are other aspects of this dynamic, threatening UK economic and political well being as well as the personal security of UK residents and citizens.

Acting consistently to prevent further mass atrocities and to tackle ongoing mass atrocities should therefore be a strategic imperative for the UK. This requires a review not just of how positive action by the UK can be timely and effective, but also of how current UK policies and actions contribute to enabling atrocities by allowing impunity for perpetrators.

How the UK fails to prevent atrocities in Syria

From the start of the current war in Syria, the UK has failed to put atrocity prevention at the centre of its response. Instead, the UK and its allies have focused on preventing WMD proliferation, focused on counter-terrorism, and focused on containing the effects of the conflict within the region but without actively protecting civilians or stopping large scale violence. The last nine years have seen failures in all these areas, failures that could have been limited or even prevented had the UK focused from the start on atrocity prevention.

Most UK military action in Syria is defined as collective defence of the state of Iraq against ISIS, not as humanitarian intervention, and civilian protection has been a secondary consideration to the primary goal of defeating ISIS. The UK military is tasked with avoiding civilian harm in Syria rather than with actively preventing civilian harm.

Humanitarian intervention was invoked by the UK Government only in 2018 to bomb chemical weapons facilities, but given the far greater number of civilian casualties inflicted by the Assad regime’s use of high explosive than its use of chemical weapons, this intervention was clearly less an act of civilian protection than of counter proliferation. The helicopters and jets used by the Assad regime for both chemical and conventional bombing of civilians were all left untouched by the UK’s 2018 action.

At the same time as UK aircraft were in Syrian airspace to fight ISIS, the UK failed to act in 2016-2018 to airdrop aid to Syrian civilians besieged by the Assad regime. In that same period, DFID was funding the use of humanitarian drones for medical supplies in African countries, and UN agencies were carrying out airdrops to regime held Deir Ezzor using JPADS remote guided parachutes. These technologies could have been used to at the very least bring medical aid to civilians suffering under Assad’s starvation sieges. Detailed viable proposals for large scale airdrops of food aid using drone aircraft were also put forward and rejected by the UK Government.

The UK’s failure is ongoing. As we have repeatedly highlighted, the UK-US Coalition and UK ally Jordan have been complicit in the forced displacement of civilians from Rukban camp, located in an area under Coalition military control.

The UK has failed to bring to trial British-born individuals accused of complicity in atrocities, some of whom are currently imprisoned by UK ally the SDF, a non-state armed group. The UK has failed to investigate and charge British-born Asma Assad for complicity in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and financial crimes where the UK has jurisdiction over UK nationals abroad. The UK has failed to impose sanctions on Russian individuals with command responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.

UK-US Coalition forces have failed to make themselves accountable to civilian survivors of the Coalition’s military campaign in Raqqa and elsewhere, thereby worsening the normalisation of mass violence in Syria, and reinforcing an expectation of impunity for perpetrators on all sides.

The consequences of failure

Today ISIS no longer controls significant territory in Syria, but the Assad regime’s reign of terror continues, with mass detention and torture of civilians, secret executions, and the forcible displacement of half the country’s population. Assad’s military is still carrying out attacks on civilian homes in a last pocket of opposition controlled Syria in the northwest. And the regime’s deliberate targeting of civilians, of homes, schools, and hospitals, has driven millions of people to flee across borders.

As long as the regime remains in power, and as long as the various military forces in Syria can act with impunity, the vast majority of Syrian refugees won’t willingly return. Yet here in the UK, we find members of the same government that failed to prevent atrocities in Syria now making political attacks on refugees who try to find safety in the UK.

Political attacks on refugees are damaging to refugees themselves, damaging to their prospects of integration in the UK, and damaging to the UK’s wider social cohesion. Ultimately this dehumanising rhetoric risks setting conditions for future atrocities here in the UK.

Precedents set in Syria have normalised mass violence by states, normalised the dehumanising of survivors and the deliberate fracturing of societies. Today, no continent is safe, and we see a very real prospect of worse to come.

For a safe and secure future, the UK needs to protect people from mass atrocities.

The UK needs to make accountable those responsible for atrocities, and UK forces and agencies need to be accountable to affected populations.

And the UK needs to work to prevent future atrocities, at home as well as abroad.