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Kate Ferguson is Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and is Fouding Director of Protection Approaches, which has convened The UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group since 2017.

Today is a dark day. The rapid escalation of Russian aggression in Ukraine should alarm as all. We should, however, likewise be alarmed by the extent to which our own Government is unprepared to adequately respond.

Putin’s Russia has a proven track record of committing and facilitating mass atrocity crimes. From Chechnya to Syria, it has deliberately and systematically utilised war crimes and crimes against humanity to further its political objectives. On Ukraine’s own territory, in Crimea and the Donbass, Russian campaigns of aggression have included documented human rights violations and atrocity.

The immediate and medium term risks of widespread systematic human rights violations in Ukraine are now high and rising. The border regions, including but not limited to Crimea and the Donbass, are exceptionally vulnerable.

Past mistakes of British foreign policy, with failures to foresee the trajectory of violence and the refusal to centre human rights concerns in decision making, cannot be repeated. The singular goal must not be to respond to Russian aggression but to help decrease risks of armed conflict and mass atrocity crimes.

This is not a semantic difference but a strategic one that must inform all British decision making. The dual need to reduce the risks of armed conflict and atrocity crimes must be pursued together but not as one. The UK has learnt painfully in former Yugoslavia, in Syria, and in Myanmar that a narrow approach to conflict prevention does not work.

It will be unforgivable if these errors are made again in Ukraine. A more creative, more strategic approach is needed.

The Russian architecture of violence is transnational, enabled by global and regional illicit financial flows, underpinned by organised crime and kleptocratic networks, supported by a spectrum of non-state and pseudo-non-state armed actors, and promoted by coordinated disinformation structures. When properly mapped out, this architecture holds considerable opportunity for sanction, leverage, and influence.

But the UK currently lacks the capabilities to properly undertake this network analysis, and so continues to miss these opportunities. As interest in and attention on the UK’s capacity to sanction and disrupt Russian aggression this systems gap must be urgently rectified.

The Government must immediately undertake comprehensive analysis of the Russian architecture of violence to properly identify the complex networks that perpetuate, fund, enable, and legitimise violence. These tools encourage a more creative and evidenced focus upon how these networks can be disrupted or dismantled.

Such a system would spotlight the full spectrum of malign actors including supply chains, human trafficking networks, the arms trade, media outlets, armed groups, and communities themselves, and would enable the UK to properly target those weak spots – be they financial flows, communication systems, or other forms of enablement.

Yes, we need a far more comprehensive set of sanctions against Russia, but they must hit the weak spots or will never be more than performative.

There are other things the Government should be doing. The Ukraine crisis team and neighbouring country embassies must urgently develop the means to identify and monitor the specific risk indicators of identity-based violence – including mass atrocity crimes. We know this isn’t currently being done but British country teams in South Sudan, Myanmar and DRC, for example, do.

It also needs to introduce an emergency communications protocol to fast-track information flows and policy responses if and when further atrocity risks are identified. And the UK’s responsibility to help protect populations from atrocity crimes needs to become someone’s (or many people’s) job. Ministerial responsibility sits with Lord Ahmed but who within the FCDO, Cabinet Office, Number 10, the National Security Council, and the Ukrainian team is tasked with delivery?

Ultimately Her Majesty’s Government must urgently integrate an atrocity prevention strategy across the UK’s Ukraine policy and this must be wholeheartedly supported across departments, from how the Home Office responds to those seeking refuge to how the Department for International Trade assesses doing business with Russia.

None of this should be seen as radical, but in fact in keeping with the Government’s own commitments. A year ago the outcomes of the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review promised a new way forward for British foreign policy. It promised a new approach to conflict and mass atrocities. The Afghanistan debacle last summer showed the limits to these promises and the extent to which the rushed merger between DfID and the FCO continued to confuse internal working. These errors cannot be repeated again in Ukraine.

The implications for regional and longer-term instability and violence will continue to metastasize. While the need to respond to events as they unfold is both understandable and needed, prioritisation must also be given to scenario planning, analysis, and human rights centred strategy. The UK must prepare for what comes next and to focus on preventing the worst outcomes.

Good work is being done within the FCDO’s new Conflict Centre to address the gaps in British systems and capabilities with respect to atrocity prevention: this work must now be prioritised and sped up, not side-lined.

This Government professes to believe in the collective responsibility to help protect populations from atrocity crimes. This responsibility is first and foremost a responsibility of prevention. Far from banishing atrocity crimes, our world has become more accustomed to them. This era of impunity and the collective failure to adequately recognise and respond to widespread systematic threats to life, have compounded in myriad ways that eat away at the strength and perceived legitimacy of human rights, democracy and multilateralism.

This erosion is a threat to us all. The alternative is not – and must never be – a return to an earlier era of muscular western aggression. The alternative can only be the human rights-centred strategic implementation of comprehensive, joined-up decision making across government departments and global partners that has at its heart the goal of prevention, not simply of response.

Without strategy or policy on reducing risks of atrocity crimes, without systems capable of mapping actors, without the means of monitoring risk, and without having anyone tasked with the job, Her Majesty’s Government enters this crisis at acute disadvantage and ill-equipped to uphold its responsibilities to help prevent atrocity crimes. This can and must be redressed.