The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - Defence Committee Contents

Written evidence from Saferworld


1.  Saferworld has welcomed the Strategic Defence and Security Review's (SDSR) ambition to "increase significantly our support to conflict prevention."[138] We also welcome the Defence Committee's decision to examine this important aspect of the SDSR, which is the focus of this submission.

2.  The SDSR contained an announcement of HMG's intention to produce a cross-departmental "Building Stability Overseas Strategy" (BSOS) in Spring 2011, which is currently being developed under the leadership of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It is not yet clear how closely the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is engaged in this process, however this submission contends that the MoD could play an important role in HMG's preventing conflict and building stability overseas.

3.  Because the underlying causes of violent conflict can be identified over time, there is much the international community can do to prevent violent conflict before it takes place - as well as addressing the consequences after it happens. It is therefore incumbent on the UK's defence community to ensure it contributes effectively to building peace, addressing the roots of these conflicts and ensuring that its wider policies do not exacerbate the likelihood of violence. This submission focuses on what contribution the MOD can play in this process.


4.  There is relatively little detail contained in the SDSR itself on what the UK's increased role in conflict prevention will entail, either for the MOD or for HMG more generally. It lays out HMG's ambition to develop better early warning systems, provide more sustained conflict prevention funding and—in principle—broaden the remit of the Stabilisation Unit to include upstream conflict prevention. As Saferworld stated in our initial response to the SDSR, these proposals have the potential—properly implemented, and backed up with genuine political will—to increase the effectiveness of the UK's contribution to conflict prevention. However, they must be backed up by a broader understanding of the drivers of conflict and how the UK can best address them to prevent conflict "upstream".

5.  Preventing violent conflict may sometimes involve peacekeeping interventions that physically prevent violence, or at least shield civilian populations from its worst effects. But, crucially, "conflict prevention" can also be understood as the process of supporting longer term societal change—helping countries to become more cohesive, resilient and able to manage conflicts without resorting to violence. This kind of long-term, upstream conflict prevention requires a coordinated range of activities, tailored to individual contexts. The MOD has a central, positive role to play in such an approach, in partnership with development and diplomatic actors.

6.  Much of the public and private discussions around the UK's role overseas have drawn from recent experience in Afghanistan and highlighted an ambition to enhance the UK's capacity for "post-conflict stabilisation". If "stabilisation" in this context is to mean a relatively short-term activity with a strong military involvement (such as recent engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo for instance) then we would stress that this must be complemented by a coherent and effective long-term preventative approach designed to promote the development of more resilient, peaceful societies. Helping to stabilise the patient must not come at the expense of helping to treat their ailment.

7.  The SDSR contains a commitment to:

8.  "Directing more non-operational defence engagement overseas towards conflict prevention, security sector reform and capability building in priority countries, including through: establishing new training teams; running joint exercises; attaching senior civilian policy advisors to foreign defence ministries, and increasing our arms control engagement so as to promote regional stabilisation and reduce the risk of conflict."

9.  This commitment points to a role for the MOD in conflict prevention which goes beyond short term military engagement to prevent violence in the short term, potentially extending to the kind of long-term preventative approach we have just described. This submission outlines just some of the activities which Saferworld would hope to see included in the BSOS, in which the MOD could have a crucial role to play.

10.  As Saferworld set out in our submission to the SDSR,[139] we believe that coordinated and effective efforts to prevent violent conflict "upstream" by supporting the development of resilient and peaceful societies can make a significant contribution to the UK's own national security—as part of promoting a more benign global environment, increased respect for the rule of law, and addressing people's genuine socio-economic and political grievances. However, our approach to conflict prevention must not be led solely by national security concerns, as this may risk the UK taking a perspective that is too short term, or focusing only on a small selection of countries that the UK currently deems to be in its immediate strategic interest.


11.  "Defence transformation" helps countries to right-size their defence assets and make the transition towards civilian control and oversight of the armed forces. This will be critical to the future of the nascent state of South Sudan, for example, which is left with a large army and a range of armed militias after 20 years of conflict. Defence spending currently represents around 30% of public spending, but if future conflict is to be prevented, the excessive level of military spending must be reduced to a more appropriate level, the role of security actors within society brought under civilian control and the state must be supported to provide its population with security. The MOD could assist in this process by deploying military and civilian advisers to help the Government of South Sudan to develop professional and non-partisan armed forces that will respect the rule of law, civilian government, democracy and human rights.

12.  Similarly, the UK already provides training for the armed forces and civilian defence figures of other countries. The UK should ensure that such trainings successfully embed genuine respect for the values of human rights, democratic principles, gender equality and conflict sensitivity as well as providing practical skills. The UK could also leverage maximum value from such trainings by using them to identify progressive champions for change and developing an ongoing relationship with these individuals.

13.  In its training of both UK and foreign defence actors, the UK should also ensure that it looks at how the armed forces engage with local populations - recognising both the benefits to be had from close, constructive engagement but also the reality of how armed forces may be perceived by communities and the implications this has.


14.  Support for the development of security and justice services (such as the police, armed forces and judiciary) that are not only capable but also democratically accountable, transparent and responsive to those they serve, is vital to reducing the risk of armed violence. While it is important to recognise that promoting security and justice sector development should be designed and implemented as a civilian intervention, in many contexts where the armed forces enjoy privileged access to power or influence, UK defence representatives may enjoy greater traction in working to support democratic reforms than their civilian counterparts. By working jointly across different arms of government, to one common strategy, HMG can ensure it is matching its approach to the needs of the context.

15.  Such interventions should not only focus on the "supply side" of reforms (supporting the development of capable, accountable security services), but also on the "demand side" from the perspective of the "users" of security and justice services, encouraging and empowering local populations to be active and engaged in the way their security services are provided.


16.  The successful "disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration" (DDR) of ex-combatants into everyday civilian life or into the security services after fighting has ceased and a peace settlement been agreed is vital to prevent a return to violence. In Nepal, for example, there are currently tens of thousands of Maoist ex-combatants living in cantonments awaiting a government-led process to either "rehabilitate" them back into civilian life (providing vocational training and financial support, for instance) or "integrate" them into Nepal's security services (such as the Police, Armed Police, and Army). The successful completion of this process is critical to Nepal's prospects for future peace.

17.  The majority of DDR initiatives should be civilian-led and developmental in character. However, there is a potential role for the UK's defence community to provide training, advice, technical and practical support to those implementing DDR processes. This could include areas such as safe weapons and ammunition storage and destruction; aspects of the (re)integration of ex-combatants into national security services (eg vetting and recruitment processes, command structure); design and delivery of reinsertion packages for ex-combatants; long-term social and economic re-integration of ex-combatants into communities (eg counselling, retraining, educational opportunities); addressing the particular needs of women and children ex-combatants, and the families of ex-combatants (eg family reunification, domestic violence prevention, meeting specific economic and social needs).


18.  Measures to control the proliferation of illicit arms within conflict prone countries are crucial to conflict prevention, and the MOD can assist both by supporting arms control measures in these countries and by ensuring the UK's arms export controls help prevent UK arms from fuelling conflict overseas.

19.  Readily available small arms and light weapons (SALW) not only exacerbate the risks of violent conflict, but may also facilitate human rights abuses, terrorism and other forms of armed criminality (such as piracy in Somalia, for example). The defence community could contribute to measures to control SALW by, for instance, providing support to countries introducing "marking and tracing" programmes to keep track of legitimately held firearms; or providing advice on securely managing or destroying stockpiles of arms so they do not find their way into the illicit market. However, to make a meaningful difference to the impact of illicit SALW proliferation on ordinary people's lives, this type of technical intervention needs to come as one element in a coordinated package of measures implemented by a range of actors. The armed forces may also have a valuable contribution to make in supporting de-mining efforts or the clearing of other explosive remnants of war, such as cluster bombs.

20.  In the SDSR, HMG proposes to increase the MOD's engagement on UK arms export controls, which is a welcome step. However, questions remain about whether HMG can successfully balance these ambitions against a concurrent desire to dramatically increase UK defence exports, and to more overtly use defence and security exports as a tool of foreign policy. Recent months have seen not only an increased focus on promoting defence and security exports as an economic activity but also as a strategic lever for international relations. For example, the Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, recently told the House of Commons:

21.  "…defence exports are not there simply to generate income. They are there to strengthen alliances with existing allies, and to promote alliances with new, important allies, in a very volatile world."[140]

22.  Whilst Saferworld recognises the inevitable reality of the role that defence and security exports play in international relations, we stress that such political uses of defence exports must not come at the expense of enforcing strict licensing criteria designed, amongst other things, to prevent UK arms from exacerbating conflict and insecurity. What appears advantageous to UK interests in the short-term may well be at odds with what is needed to promote long-term international peace and security. It is our strong contention, therefore, that HMG should maintain a robust, criteria-led approach to arms export controls and ensure such efforts are not trumped by pressures to increase defence sales as part of the UK's economic recovery.

23.  Defence Attachés are a vital link in the UK's export control regime in terms of assessing the risk associated with potential UK arms exports to the country where they are posted. With the increased focus on UK overseas staff promoting UK commercial interests and bilateral trade, it is important that this role is not neglected.

24.  Saferworld welcomes the SDSR's support for an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). While the FCO is leading HMG's work on the treaty, the MOD is part of the cross-departmental team which is engaged in the ATT process, and its involvement could be crucial to ensuring a robust and effective treaty is agreed at the UN in 2012. While the UK has long supported the ATT process, several major arms-exporting states remain sceptical about the benefits of introducing a high common standard of arms export controls, and they could choose to derail the negotiations and undermine the prospects for a strong ATT.

25.  While the FCO must utilise its diplomatic networks to persuade these states to support a strong treaty, in some other countries it will be their defence ministry, or even the military, which ultimately defines their government's position on the ATT. In such cases, diplomatic approaches from the MOD may carry more weight than those from the FCO in convincing those states to sign up to a strong ATT. Once the treaty is agreed, MOD representatives posted overseas, such as Defence Attachés, could play an invaluable role in monitoring countries' compliance with the ATT. This is just one example of the role that "defence diplomacy" can play in HMG's strategy for upstream conflict prevention.


26.  These examples of interventions which could be made by the MOD in order to enhance the UK's ability to prevent conflict overseas do not constitute an exhaustive list, and it is vital that the UK does not apply a "template" approach to conflict prevention. HMG must look at the individual characteristics and realities of each context it is working in and use these as the starting point for its efforts to prevent conflict. Afghanistan is not Yemen and neither of these places are Somalia. For this reason, any conflict prevention initiatives should always begin with the context and involve the people they affect.

27.  All long term conflict prevention efforts should be based on a thorough understanding of the context, gained from in-depth analysis which is continually updated and shared between relevant actors. This contextual understanding should look at several levels—it is not enough to understand the high level political dynamics or international diplomatic issues in isolation, though these are important. We must also understand what the perceptions of ordinary people and communities are. This is a lesson neatly captured by the former head of ISAF, US General Stanley McChrystal:

28.  "In Afghanistan, things are rarely as they seem, and the outcomes of actions we take, however well-intended, are often different from what we expect … If you build a well in the wrong place in a village, you may have shifted the basis of power in that village … If you build a well and contract it to one person or group over another, you make a decision that, perhaps in your ignorance, tips the balance of power, or perception thereof, in that village. Therefore, with a completely altruistic aim of building a well, you can create divisiveness or give the impression that you, from the outside, do not understand what is going on or that you have sided with one element or another, yet all you tried to do is provide water."[141]

29.  Closely related to understanding what local people really think is ensuring that they are involved meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives. This is not just a moral issue: conflict and insecurity is a product of people's choices and, to a large degree, plays out at the local level. Neither the UK nor any other part of the international community can "provide" security or "deliver" stability—we cannot simply turn up with governance (or security, or development) "in a box". Instead, the UK can use its resources and influence to promote peace and security, but achieving lasting stability and sustainable security will rely on not just the consent of local people, but also their active input and ownership. As the MoD's February 2010 green paper suggested,

30.  "… local people must be at the centre of our policy. Only local people will determine whether, in the long-term, a country or region will establish self-sustaining stability."[142]

31.  A range of actors can bring different competencies and comparative advantages to context analysis, including the armed forces—who may often have access to areas or information that other parts of HMG do not. Bringing together all these various analytical elements into one comprehensive context analysis, shared across government, will be crucial to ensuring that UK interventions are most effective. This cross-departmental conflict analysis can then inform joint cross-government country strategies for HMG's work in conflict-affected and fragile states.


32.  How the success of strategies for conflict prevention is measured can have important implications for how future strategies are designed and implemented, and Saferworld welcomes the Defence Committee's interest in how the success of the SDSR will be measured.

33.  Any monitoring and evaluation framework for the conflict prevention component of the SDSR, including the BSOS, should place priority on the long term impact of action taken to prevent conflict upstream. A key part of that framework should be an assessment of how well communities have been included in the assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation of the UK's conflict prevention work. This will be very important in selling a common vision of upstream conflict prevention across HMG, as well as identifying and rewarding each department for the unique contribution it can make.

February 2011

138   "UK Strategic Defence and Security Review" (2010) HREF="#n138">Back

139   "Safer world, safer Britain: Submission to UK Strategic Defence and Security Review" (2010) HREF="#n139">Back

140   HC Deb, 31 January 2011, col. 576. Back

141   General Stanley McChrystal Address, IISS, October 2009. Back

142   MOD, Adaptability and Partnership, Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, February 2010. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 3 August 2011