January 26, 2017

The Cost of Doing Nothing: The Price of Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocities

“There are few more complex questions than when to intervene overseas. Jo Cox was an inspirational humanitarian who cared deeply about preventing violence and protecting people around the world. It is a fitting part of Jo’s legacy that this paper will challenge politicians of all parties to consider how we can put such considerations at the heart of the decisions we take.” (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Prime Minister) 


‘The Cost of Doing Nothing’ report started with Jo Cox, who believed ‘Britain must lead again’

In a report for Policy Exchange, Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South and Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, say that “the rise of knee jerk isolationism, unthinking pacifism and anti-interventionism in Britain have dangerous implications for national security and the safety of civilians around the world”.

The paper, The Cost of Doing Nothing, was initially due to be published by MPs Jo Cox (a former humanitarian worker) and Tom Tugendhat (a former soldier) in July to coincide with the delayed Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. However, Jo’s murder on 16th June led to the paper being put on hold. With the consent of Jo’s husband, Brendan Cox, Policy Exchange has today (Thursday) released the full report, with McGovern completing the work of her close friend and colleague.

Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband, said:

“Jo was passionate about this piece of work. She felt deeply that the UK had a duty to stand up for civilians threatened by war and genocide. Her commitment wasn’t theoretical, it was forged by her experience of meeting survivors of genocide in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan. Last week I was clearing some of Jo’s things and found the first draft of the report that she had scribbled all over. At the top she had written ‘Britain must lead again’. Although she isn’t here to advance that argument, she’d be delighted that her colleagues and friends are able to do so in her stead.”

Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said:

“Britain has never been isolationist. It is in our national interest to be engaged with the world we helped shape. That means taking responsibility, and influencing events and intervening when necessary. To stand aside would not make us or the world safer, but leave us vulnerable to the whims of others rather than doing what we have always done – shape our own destiny and be a force for good.”

Alison McGovern, MP for Wirral South, added:

“We cannot simply look the other way in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Jo never believed that simply doing nothing in the face of atrocities was good enough, and neither should we. On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, and in the light of what is happening right now in Syria, it is ever more important for us to do what we can to ensure her message is heard.”

Former Prime Minister Rt Hon Gordon Brown, who will launch the report today, said:

‘In her last speech in the House of Commons, Jo Cox said that “sometimes all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Nothing is more important than the responsibility of each state to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and the responsibility of the international community to act if a state is unwilling or unable to do so.’

Former Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Lord Hague, who has recorded a special video message for the launch event, said:

“It is vital to defeat the temptation that has grown in recent years to turn our backs on the rest of the world. This is neither strategically sound, nor in keeping with British traditions and values. Hard as it may be, we have to be prepared to use all the tools in our toolbox to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity, and advance the causes of universal human rights and development.”

The report examines the history of British intervention – militarily and from a humanitarian perspective – arguing that it has been an irreducible part of British foreign and national security policy for over two hundred years. It says that while the recent lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan must be learned, a retreat from playing a proactive role in world affairs heightens the risk of further global instability.

The paper points to recent examples of where intervention has been successful:

  • The establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 successfully protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s genocidal air attacks.
  • The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo protected tens of thousands of civilians threatened by Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.
  • The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 helped repel the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) advance, paving a path to peace.

The paper also highlights examples of where failure to intervene has had devastating consequences:

  • In 1994, the international community’s slow response to the breakdown of peace in Rwanda was unable to prevent the genocide of up to 1 million Tutsis.
  • The inadequacy of UN missions in the former Yugoslavia meant they did not have a mandate to prevent ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia including the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.
  • Most recently, the British government’s defeat in a House of Commons vote in 2013 meant that Western governments did not intervene in the earlier stages of the Syrian Civil War; it is estimated that half a million people have now died and two million been displaced in the ongoing conflict.


Jo Cox

Jo Cox was a life-long humanitarian. She dedicated her career to helping those less fortunate than herself, whether in Batley and Spen or around the world.

Tom Tugendhat

Conservative MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge, and Malling

John Bew

Head of Britain in the World

Alison McGovern

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

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