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Comment & analysis

What is the right role for the UK in preventing and resolving conflict? Views from Africa, Asia and the Middle East

24 April 2024 Lewis Brooks, UK Policy and Advocacy Adviser

How do peacebuilders from the Middle East, Africa and Asia perceive the UK’s current and potential role in preventing and resolving conflict? Too often, consultations on UK policy bring together Whitehall civil servants and the same London-based policy professionals (this author included) without considering this question. And yet addressing perceptions of the UK’s role is vital to ensure the UK contributes positively to international peace and security.

In response to this, in March Saferworld convened a consultation between UK government officials and researchers, academics and national civil society organisations from conflict-affected countries, to inform the UK government’s understanding of contemporary conflict trends and how the UK should respond to them. The group included experts on high-level Track II dialogues, peacebuilding, security sector accountability and reform, and human rights promotion from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

The consultation found that the UK can play a positive role in preventing and resolving conflict, if it:

  • improves localisation efforts to flexibly support local conflict prevention and reduction, amid the ever-evolving nature of conflict
  • strengthens efforts to ensure the aid budget is conflict sensitive
  • addresses declining civic space and acts as a broker of relationships between civil society, authorities and security forces
  • plays a diplomatic role with other allies in norm setting around technology and conflict
  • addresses the perceived hypocrisy of UK militarism in the Middle East

The discussion was held under the Chatham House rule. What follows is an anonymised summary.

Emerging trends in conflict

State-to-state competition: Often missing from debates on the current state of geopolitical competition between countries and how this drives conflict is the need to address the agency of small and medium-sized states and their attitudes to global norms. States have different approaches to these norms, with some preferring justice and others looking to maintain order. This creates challenges for preserving norms that support peace. The group also discussed the role of neighbouring states in destabilising conflict-affected countries by hosting or supporting political or armed opposition groups – as well as reflecting on the positive role neighbouring countries can play in hosting refugees. Cross-border smuggling in arms, narcotics and people creates another type of transnational conflict driver. Climate change and resource scarcity are also exacerbating contemporary inter- and intra-state conflicts.

The role of technology in driving conflict: The role of data gathering in forced conscription, hijacking of mobile money platforms and the hacking of electronic election management systems are all examples of technological drivers of conflict and insecurity. The proliferation of hate speech on social media not only drives conflict within borders but is sometimes perpetrated by diaspora groups. While social media companies have worked to combat this and have provided platforms for civil society to respond, participants believed the companies’ efforts were inadequate. A lack of or limited access to technology was also seen as a source of intergenerational conflict between old and young in some regions. Controlling access or shutting down internet and telecommunications are increasingly used by conflict parties or authoritarian actors to suppress dissent and information sharing.

Threats to civic space: These technological trends intertwine with concerns about democratic backsliding and increasing restrictions on civic space, which both worsen grievances and threaten civil society efforts to resolve conflict. Securitisation is also a contributing factor in undermining civic space, civil society and civil efforts to end violence. In both Nigeria and Kenya, some socio-economic and political conflicts are increasingly seen as a law enforcement problem with restrictions placed on the movement of civilians – people who could play a positive role in alleviating tensions but who are constrained by security forces from doing so.

The role of the UK

Improve conflict-contextualised localisation: There was a general call for improving the kind of support the UK provides to organisations in conflict-affected countries. National and sub-national organisations can access areas that international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding agencies cannot. They also bring a more contextualised understanding of local conflict dynamics and responses, reflecting the uniqueness of each conflict. Yet as one person raised, “Localisation is a strong and sustainable concept but more words than practice at this moment”. Participants criticised a lack of ownership of decision-making over funding allocations and projects. They also called for sustainable and flexible models that allowed them to respond to the shifting dynamics of conflict and peace opportunities rather than the annual cycle of project reporting requirements and re-bidding for funding. This support should go beyond international involvement in national-level political settlements and have a greater focus on sub-national dialogues, agreements and peace efforts which can stabilise crises and be scaled up to national-level resolution.

Ensure conflict and gender sensitivity: One way the UK could do this is to help diffuse tensions between refugees and host communities, in part through planning how assistance is distributed across both groups. Another example was the need to address how armed groups have managed to benefit from aid diversion in certain contexts.

Address declining civic space: The (former) Department for International Development (DFID) was recognised for supporting national NGOs through civil society strengthening and it was hoped the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office could do more of this kind of work. There was also appreciation for support to programming on Women, Peace and Security. Participants also thought the UK could find ways to leverage resources, including funding from private industry, to contribute to international peace as well as be a direct donor itself.

Play a diplomatic role in norm setting: One participant called for the UK to work with South and East Asian governments to set norms on emerging technologies. This would include establishing international standards for minimum human involvement in lethal decision-making and autonomous weapons, minimum standards on testing autonomous military technologies, and restrictions ensuring human control of nuclear weapons. While the compatibility of different systems used by different countries could be a challenge, this norm setting role was seen as vital for mitigating future conflicts.

Broker civil society, security force and government relationships: This could help address some of the challenges associated with securitisation and civic space. But the UK needs to be cautious in its approach. This role isn’t appropriate in every context and the UK needs to have ‘its eyes open’ to the ways in which governments are trying to increase control of civic and political space, and should work with like-minded embassies to condemn wrongdoing where appropriate.

Address the hypocrisies in Western foreign policy: Increasing mistrust of the UK could undermine its positive role in addressing conflict, while its negative actions have direct, secondary and third-order effects that drive conflict. The UK’s support for Israel in the context of massive violence against Palestinians following the 7 October attacks was seen as a major example of this. Many people in the Middle East are now more sympathetic towards Iran and the Houthis in Yemen, who are perceived to be fighting back on behalf of the Palestinian people despite their own track record of violence and abuse. The UK’s involvement in air strikes and naval manoeuvres in the Red Sea was poorly received, and the resulting mistrust and perceptions among societies pose challenges for those working towards peace. The growing unpopularity of the US and the UK creates opportunities for third parties like Russia and China to increase their influence in the region.

Conclusion

The experts who took part in the consultation agreed that there is a positive role for the UK in addressing conflict – but one that requires some shifts. The UK needs to widen its lens on conflict and support the analysis and actions of civil society from conflict-affected countries to improve its role as a donor. The UK can do more to set norms with like-minded states and, where appropriate, act as a broker between civil society, governments and security forces. It also needs to shift strategy in the Middle East if it is to stem the growing mistrust in the UK, which risks undermining the positive role it can play.

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