The Oxford Forum for International Development (Oxford Forum), the largest student-run International Development conference in Europe, opened its doors for the 12th time on February 8-9, 2020. The two day conference on “Beyond Pledges: Delivering Change in an Inclusive World” was co-organized with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the New York Times. The idea behind the conference was to facilitate collaboration between all stakeholders in International Development by starting conversations through a conference between students, researchers, young professionals, policymakers, practitioners and thought leaders. 

Thousands of Yazidis as they tried to escape from Daesh (Islamic State, ISIL). (Photo credit: Emrah … [+] Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
2014 Anadolu Agency
The discussions were divided into four themes. The “From Council to Community” session grappled with the question of how the wider community could be engaged in international development policy. The panelists discussed the need for “more inclusive, bottom-up development strategies in parallel with top-down initiatives in order to provide locally appropriate, impactful and sustainable solutions.” The sessions explored the importance of increasing community and private sector engagement to help bring more meaningful change and progress. The “Cooperation amidst Disruption” sessions looked at contemporary divisions at the local, regional and international levels to understand their impact on development initiatives. As the organizers noted “in a climate of divisive political rhetoric and widespread sectarian conflict, global collaboration will play a decisive role in defining our ability to tackle the most pressing issues of our time.” The “Giving and Taking” session addressed the importance of diversifying approaches to aid and providing more adaptable forms of development finance. Finally, the “Keeping Promises” session explored questions surrounding whether stakeholders are accountable for the promises that they make. The panelists looked beyond pledges and critically analyzed the effectiveness of existing policy tools and legal mechanisms designed to deliver accountability and transparency. 
The aim of the conference was to explore what happens to pledges once they are made. For example, over the years, states and international actors have pledged time and time again, that such mass atrocities like genocide cannot happen again. Indeed, one of the sessions “Confronting Global Responses to Genocide” engaged with the pledges that were made under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).  What has happened to these pledges to prevent, suppress and punish the crime of genocide? The pledges are there, but the willingness to translate them into reality are not. 

To be able to prevent genocide, states need to have comprehensive early warning mechanisms which would enable them to spot the signs of genocide to come. As genocide does not happen over night, studying such signs and analysis of their manifestations in situations of concerns, could help to make the duty to prevent a possibility. However, once the early warning signs are detected, to prevent their escalation, it is essential to ensure that decisive steps follow. The case of Iraq is a good example to portray the issue. 
In 2014, Daesh unleashed its genocidal campaign against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. The UK Government missed several early warning signs over the preceding years. If spotted in time and addressed, it is possible that atrocities could have been prevented from escalating into genocide. Just three years before the genocidal atrocities, in 2011, the UK Border Agency published a report on the situation in Iraq. The report identified deadly attacks on religious minorities, especially during religious gatherings. This included reports of kidnapping and murder. Both crimes were carried out with impunity. Armed groups attacked religious minorities, including Christian, Yazidi, and Shabak communities, labeling them crusaders, devil-worshipers, and infidels. Such labeling of groups with names like crusaders, devil-worshipers, and infidels is a clearly identifiable stage of genocide; dehumanization. In the same way, the Nazis labeled the Jews as vermin and the Hutu labeled Tutsi as cockroaches. The early warning signs were there also several years before the 2011 report. Yet a comprehensive response did not follow, allowing Daesh to continue with its atrocities. 

The case shows how, despite the UK’s pledge to prevent genocide, despite identifying some early warning signs, failed to follow up and respond to them. A response which could have prevented escalation to mass atrocities. Ultimately, the UK was breach its Genocide Convention duties. What does that mean? What are the consequences? None. No-one will shame the UK as the UK has not been alone in failing to act. States share this responsibility. 
This is why a new approach is needed, an approach that will revive the pledges once made when the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities were still fresh in mind. The new approach must help to translate them into reality. This new approach must provide an action plan to ensure that we move beyond mere pledges and ensure a comprehensive response to mass atrocities like genocide. The Oxford Forum provides a great platform to engage with such ideas and proposals. However, these must be taken up by leaders who have mastered the art of making pledges, but not following through on them. They must receive the message and hear it at last.

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