Holocaust Remembrance Day And The Cost of Doing Nothing

We need to get better in spotting the signs of mass atrocities, call them for what they are, and take decisive steps to stop them
Martin Ruegner via Getty Images

27 January marks the annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust (the Holocaust Remembrance Day), a day that is being used to remember the victims of the Holocaust but also to consider whether we have learned anything from this gruesome mass crime and how we can protect our and future generations from such atrocities. Last year, just before the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Policy Exchange released a new report ‘The Cost of Doing Nothing.’ The report was initiated by late Jo Cox, former Labour MP for Batley and Spen and Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling. After the murder of Jo Cox, Tom Tugendhat MP finalised the report with Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South.

The report scrutinises British interventions in response to mass atrocities in different parts of the world over the last 200 years and claims that taking a step back from its proactive role in worlds’ affairs would heighten the risk of global instability. The report emphasises that ‘the past does not teach us to turn away completely, but to engage earlier, more comprehensively, and in concert with others.’ The report draws on some the lessons learned from the mass atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, and scrutinises the different British responses to these atrocities. The report explains how the UK and the international community sat back when the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda were taking place and contrasts it with the successful British intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The report makes several recommendations for the UK to uphold its responsibility to protect civilians and prevent mass atrocities that must be taken on board with due diligence.

Today, a year after the launch of ‘The Cost of Doing Nothing’ it is worth considering whether there is anything else that needs to be done by the UK to improve its record of interventions when mass atrocities occur outside of the UK and how this can be done.

What strikes me the most is not the ‘not deciding to intervene’ itself but the UK’s failure to take a clear stance concerning mass atrocities that could trigger such interventions. One of such failures would be that the UK government refuses to acknowledge mass atrocities as genocide even if the elements of the crime are very clear or highly likely. The UK government responds that it is not for politicians but for the ‘international judicial system’ to decide. This questions what this ‘international judicial system’ is and how long we can wait for their response, are left without any response.

Currently, the UK does not have any mechanism that would allow the determination of genocide. While such a formal mechanism is not necessary, and the UK government could, for example, initiate a fact-finding mission and request a legal opinion to make such a determination, the UK chooses to shield behind the ‘international judicial system’ argument. An argument that the Dutch government has recently thoroughly rebutted.

To address this issue, Lord David Alton of Liverpool introduced the Genocide Determination Bill, a private members’ bill, with the aim to ‘provide for the High Court of England and Wales to make a preliminary finding on cases of alleged genocide.’ As the future of the bill is still not clear, the approaching 70th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide should be used to engage the UK government to critically assess its failures under the convention and determine ways in which those failures could be addressed.

Another option that could be looked into would be of the UK government establishing a new office at the FCO that would consider and make genocide determination in interim. After arriving at a determination, recommended actions can be taken to stop the atrocities, investigate the crimes, bring the perpetrators to justice, provide humanitarian assistance to the survivors, and address any other needs of the survivors. This could be a one-person office considering the red flags of mass atrocities around the world and instructing experts in the field to prepare an opinion or a team of few conducting this crucial work. This determination of genocide, even if in interim only, is essential, as scrutinised by Professor Gregory Stanton, ‘it was not until the term ‘genocide’ was applied to the crimes, that force was used to stop them.’

On the Holocaust Remembrance Day, imagine what if, the world did not come united to stop the Holocaust and barbaric atrocities of the Nazis, imagine if no one would have acted to stop any other subsequent atrocities, imagine if the perpetrators would have been allowed to continue their genocidal actions. If we have any respect to the victims and survivors of the several mass crimes that took place since WWII – we need to get better in spotting the signs of mass atrocities, call them for what they are, and take decisive steps to stop them and assist the affected people.

Before You Go