We regularly remember mass slaughter with solemn promises to make sure our humanitarian watchwords, “Never Again,” mean something. Since my election I’ve been calling for the creation of an Atrocity Prevention Unit, to improve the early identification of, and effective reaction to, emerging conflict and atrocities. I’m delighted that the Government has placed conflict prevention and recovery at the heart of its Integrated Review, and announced a Conflict Prevention Centre. This week marks 30 years since Sir John Major prevented a genocide in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. On this important anniversary we proudly salute Sir John Major’s pragmatic and moral actions which saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.
In April 1991 the Kurds in Iraq faced the wrath of Saddam Hussein who had been defeated in Kuwait and was seeking to quell popular uprisings across Iraq. The international coalition that achieved the swift liberation of Kuwait didn’t want to exceed their remit by attempting to directly deliver regime change. Instead, the US encouraged grassroot rebellions as the people of Iraq rose up to overthrow the dictator. Sadly, the ceasefire terms reached with the Americans initially included permission for Saddam to deploy helicopters as roads and bridges were impassable. Saddam grabbed the opportunity and used it to brutally massacre rebels, starting in the south before heading north for the Kurds. As Sir John Major recalls in his autobiography, “defeated in the war, Saddam Hussein’s fury turned on his domestic opponents – the Kurds”…and that “Genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character.” This would be the second time in three years that Saddam had launched an attempted genocide against the Kurds.
To escape the bombardments, two million men, women, and children took to the mountains in an attempt to escape the oncoming slaughter. No friends but the mountains may be the proverb, but the barren mountains took a toll, with up to 1,000 people dying each day. One father, driven to desperation and facing the invidious choice of freezing to death with his children on the mountain or returning to a certain death tied himself to his children and jumped off the mountain.
Kurds around the world urged urgent action and some occupied Iraqi embassies. The British people, Parliament and the Government were rightly horrified, and came together to collect clothes, blankets, food, and medicine, shipping hundreds of tonnes of support packages to our Kurdish friends. But there was grave concern that the Government might insist on withdrawing our troops from the country as was planned following the end of the conflict in Kuwait, and fall back on the conventional view that the unfolding situation was the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
Thankfully, to his and our nation’s credit, the then new Prime Minister, Sir John Major refused to turn a blind eye. It was Sir Major who persuaded European leaders, and then a reluctant American President, George Bush Senior, to support a novel solution – an internal safe haven and no-fly zone. Once enforced, the safe haven enabled the Kurdish people to return home in the biggest move of refugees since the end of World War two. Having failed to eradicate the Kurdish people, Saddam was content in the arrogance that Kurdistan would not, in his mind, survive without his support. How wrong he was, and how they thrived.
Without the protection of the safe haven, many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Kurds would have been massacred and modern Iraqi Kurdistan would potentially have never come to be. Instead thanks to the intervention of the international community under British leadership, Iraqi Kurds build a new society and elected a new parliament that did much to help Iraq recover from Saddam’s dictatorship when he was ousted in 2003. Since then our two nations have enjoyed a strong friendship, with the Kurds playing a decisive role in the defeat of Daesh. There is no question that without the Kurds we would have faced an oil-rich, and therefore even more lethal, terrorist force occupying an ever-greater stretch of the Middle East.
The unity of purpose of the Kurdish people, the importance to the British people of standing up for human rights, and the determination of Sir John Major and politicians of all colours prevented a genocide. Never again should mean learning lessons. In 2013 our Parliament failed to act in Syria, and today we see mass atrocities taking place in Xinjiang province in China, in Tigray region of Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mali and once more in Myanmar. Sadly, the list does not end here.
The UK is a world leader in the promotion of human rights and the protection of civilians. This is a role we should be truly proud of and continue to embrace as we forge our new place in the international community. As we move forward, the Government’s creation of a Conflict Centre is an opportunity to assess and respond more effectively to instances of gross violations of human rights around the world.
Currently, as atrocities are identified, our embassies and teams in London that focus on a specific geographical area have to upskill themselves while an atrocity unfolds. Despite a lack of specific expertise in atrocity prevention, teams work enormously hard to put in place effective diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to prevent or limit violations of human rights, while they carry out their existing diplomatic and humanitarian work in country.
The Conflict Centre must provide a quick reaction point unit to support these teams, the UK will be able to make the best use of resources and knowledge, respond effectively and comprehensively, and de-escalate and prevent catastrophic loss of life.
This Centre should provide a central hub of expertise for all embassies and country teams to draw upon for support to limit and prevent atrocities. Its team offering effective support in the design of swift and effective humanitarian programmes during emerging and existing atrocities. This would include refugee protection, evidence collection, quick reaction Conflict, Stability and Security Fund programming, sanctions regime design, security and justice interventions, multilateral engagement and counter perpetrator disinformation. Crucially, the team should develop comprehensive measurement and evaluation mechanisms to ensure we learn from our own experience and that of others how to prevent, limit or stop atrocities swiftly and effectively. This will enable us to respond at pace to mass violations of human rights and instances of crimes against humanity, and ensure our efforts are based on experience of what interventions are most effective in these grave circumstances.
Upholding human rights, the highest standards of humanitarianism, and the rule of law have long been goals of British foreign policy. The creation of a Conflict Centre should represent our Government saying ‘Never Again’, and demonstrate to the world that the UK has a loud and unleashed voice and might to uphold universal values for the protection of humanity, where they are threatened. It will help deliver on the promise of a Global Britain.
Join us Thursday 8th April at a rally to celebrate 30th anniversary of the safe-haven, acknowledging Sir John Major’s bold initiative and subsequent UNSC Resolution 688 that saved the Kurds from further genocide.
Alicia Kearns is member of the United Kingdom’s parliament for Rutland and Melton. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and National Security Strategy Joint Committee and Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan.