In 2007, Jo Cox was sat in the shade of a wooden hut in the Chadian desert. Around her were women who had fled the flames and bullets of the Janjaweed in the Darfur region of Sudan to seek the shelter provided by humanitarian organisations. Jo had brought with her eight global women leaders, including former Irish president Mary Robinson, to hear the experiences of Darfuri women.
By connecting these two groups of women, Jo was doing something powerful. She forged a personal connection between women who had led their families from violence with those who would become their champions in Washington, London and at the UN. These women – the refugees, the aid workers, the political leaders – ultimately helped secure a peacekeeping mission to help protect the people of Darfur.
As an aid worker and as a Member of Parliament, Jo campaigned passionately for two issues that this experience exemplified: the power of women to drive political change, and how identity-based violence including war crimes can be prevented if global leaders support and listen to those working on the ground.
Today, the Department for International Development (DFID) is launching Jo Cox Memorial Grants to support small organisations around the world working to promote these two goals. This is a fitting and welcome continuation of my friend’s inspirational leadership.
The Memorial Grants’ work on identity-based violence will be in line with the international norm known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). In New York in 2005, world leaders from every nation on earth, from the UK and the US to Russia and China, signed up to this responsibility, recognising as Jo did that we cannot simply turn a blind eye to the human and political failures that allowed genocide in Rwanda, Srebrenica or the Holocaust. We all have a part to play in preventing such horrors.
World leaders at the UN agreed that first and foremost they each hold the responsibility to protect their own citizens from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or ethnic cleansing. They committed to support each other in this obligation. But they also agreed that, where a national government is unwilling or unable to afford even that basic protection to its people, the international community has a responsibility to halt or prevent the gravest crimes human beings can commit. The vision was that this would ideally be through diplomacy and development support, but if necessary through the use of military force.
It is far more costly in human life, in taxpayers’ money, and in political capital to act once violence has begun than it is to prevent hate speech from escalating into violence, to prevent the ripping of a community’s fabric in a way that turns neighbour against neighbour. That is why the Grants will support groups seeking to prevent that kind of escalation. We know from history that the worst crimes against humankind do not start when the first drop of blood is shed: the Holocaust did not start with the death camps like Theresienstadt where my relatives died; the genocide of the Tutsis did not start with the first blow of a machete. These crimes start when people are mobilised using hatred, division, and the twisting of identity, and that is what the Grants will seek to prevent.
Still, as a country with a proud history of leadership on protecting people in war and promoting human rights, if efforts to prevent atrocities fail, the UK must be ready to take timely action, using all the tools we have – including being ready to use military force – to protect the most vulnerable from appalling violence. This should not be a party political matter: it is a matter of humanity. Jo realised this from her experience with people caught up in conflict around the world, as she had begun to argue so powerfully in Parliament and in the Cost of Doing Nothing report, which I worked on with her before she was killed, and completed with Alison McGovern MP following Jo’s murder.
All MPs share a responsibility too: to heed the warning signs from those working on the ground, to urge the Government of the day to be proactive, and to champion changes the Government must make to be better able to predict atrocities and act to prevent them. The UK has a blindspot here. The country’s foreign policy apparatus fails to see when division and hatred are being used in a way that creates the risk of mass atrocities; the responsibility gets lost in the gap between DFID and the Foreign Office. That is why the UK failed to see and respond to the mounting signs of coming brutality against the Rohingya, as highlighted by the Select Committees on both Foreign Affairs, which I chair, and on International Development.
In January, the Genocide Prevention APPG, of which I became co-chair following Jo’s murder, heard from a survivor of the Holocaust, Martin Stern. He told us: ‘nobody can bring back the six million who were killed – all we can do is work upon the future.’ Preventing future violence targeted according to the simple fact of a person’s identity is what this Memorial Grants are about. It is a very welcome step towards the Government upholding its responsibilities. Jo, and these Grants, must be an inspiration to us all to live up to ours.
Tom Tugendhat is the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and co-chair of the APPG for Genocide Prevention