In October I flew to Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic. The reason for my trip to Bangui was as part of an international training team let by the Auschwitz Insititute for Peace & Reconciliation, to work with Central African Republic’s new National Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and All Forms of Discrimination. It’s a mouthful, but the name does explain the group’s urgent and enormous objective.
And I was there –the whole team was there– because of a fund set up in memory of Jo Cox by the UK’s Department for International Development to improve the prediction and prevention of identity-based violence, including mass atrocities, around the world.
Central African Republic faces long-term, entrenched crises characterised by surges of violence against a backdrop of a survival economy and deep identity-based cleavages. A shaky peace agreement is in place but the country is still at the beginning of its recovery from recent atrocities. In 2013 over 850,000 –of a population of 4.6 million– fled their homes as widespread state and non-state violence targeted people because of their ethnic, religious or political identities. UN officials were warning that they could not rule out genocide. Today, a repetition of the events of 2013 and a return of atrocities cannot be excluded.
The National Committee, and the training on preventing identity-based violence that is being supported by the Jo Cox Memorial Fund, create a much-needed forum where representatives from across CAR’s government departments can come together to consider what measures they as individuals within their bureaus, or as a national collective, can take to enhance resilience against identity-based violence, from discrimination to genocide. It is urgent, impactful work.
Identity-based violence is motivated by how perpetrators see their victims’ identity. Hate crime, violent extremism, genocide are all acts of identity-based violence. And while its victims may often look different, it exists across the world, from Batley to Bangui. Jo’s murder was an act of identity-based violence.
When it comes down to it, its prevention begins with the starting point that, whatever the specific differences in question, people always have more in common than that which divides them.
There are many, many people who knew Jo better than I did. But during her year in Parliament we worked together because of our common conviction that the UK Parliament and her Majesty’s Government share in the collective responsibility to help protect populations or groups, wherever they are in the world, from being targeted because of their identity.
From the moment of our first meeting, which was about what more the UK parliament could do for Syrians, as she clattered across the foyer of Portcullis House from a vote in the Commons on childcare access in Parliament, I felt I would want to work with Jo for the rest of our careers. As her friend John Bew wrote, she was perhaps the best foreign secretary we would now never have.
Throughout the unpleasant furore in Parliament this year that, among other things, has served to distract from the rising vulnerabilities of people here in the UK and in places like Central African Republic, I have thought so much about Jo.
I wish I could tell her about the conversations we’re having in Bangui. I wish I could tell her about the work that we’ll be doing next year in the Democratic Republic of Congo thanks to the same DfID fund set up in her name. I wish I could tell her that for the first time, all major parties are promising to prioritise the prevention of widespread identity-based violence and mass atrocities in the new parliament. And she should be there at the heart of it. I wish I could ask her advice about what more the UK parliament could do to support their parliamentary counterparts in Bangui whose work is now, in some special way, connected to her legacy. I know she would have big ideas.
And so I will continue to honour Jo’s memory by working to bridge difference, whether in my own country or in others.
Dr Kate Ferguson is Co-Executive Director of Protection Approaches, the UK’s only charity committed to ending all identity- based violence.
Tw. @WordsAreDeeds/ @IBVprev