Until now, the UK’s prevailing approach to global conflict and mass atrocities has been one of response and of firefighting. As a result, it too often resulted in missed opportunities to help mitigate harms. Whether in Rakhine in Myanmar in 2017, in Central African Republic in 2014, or Syria in 2011, the window of opportunity to help vulnerable populations closed before the UK had properly recognised the trajectory of violence.
There is much to pick through, question, and challenge when reading the new vision for the UK’s international policy as set out in the outcomes document of the year-long Integrated Review of Defence, Development and Diplomacy published by Her Majesty’s Government on Tuesday. But—and particularly with regards to conflict, stability and resilience—it holds promise of a much-needed pivot to a prevention-first approach that could transform British policy and potentially save an untold number of lives worldwide.
The new blueprint for UK foreign policy promises a greater emphasis on atrocity prevention, a welcome signal for those of us that have long argued the UK approach to conflict was too conceptually narrow and programmatically disjointed to meet the complex challenges posed by the rising incidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other mass atrocity crimes. The false but common assumption that such acts follow on from armed conflict meant that the propellants of identity-based violence and atrocities—namely grievances, discrimination, and marginalisation—were lacking from most Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DfID) frameworks, trainings, and policies.
That now appears to have changed. The government now commits to “establish a more integrated approach to government work on conflict and instability,” promising to prioritise “grievances, political marginalisation and criminal economies” as root causes of conflict. This shift in the government’s understanding of where modern armed violence comes from matters because frameworks, trainings, and policies will now have to be updated, embedding a commitment to address grievances and marginalisation at the heart of UK international policy.
This implicitly overturns a problematic logic that dominated in parts of DfID and the humanitarian sector that continued to see poverty as the primary driver of conflict or saw poverty reduction as something of a panacea. As Zeid Raad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee: “Wars don’t start because people are poor, neither do they start because people are illiterate. They start because of structural discrimination and the deliberate attempt to marginalise people…indeed if you look at the conflicts of today all of them have their antecedents in human rights deficits.”
The new focus on criminal economics should also be welcomed. Modern atrocities and conflict are commonly accompanied—and at times waged by—organised criminal networks, and yet UK conflict prevention has rarely prioritised strategies that address organised crime, corruption, and the petty criminality and violence that perceived immunity breeds in the lead up to, during, and in the wake of organised violence. In bringing these dynamics to the forefront of UK thinking, a spectrum of preventative interventions, from creative use of the new sanctions regime to programme design to interrupt the recruitment of potential perpetrators, opens up for the UK and its networks.
There has often been a reluctance in the UK to engage with the political or financial logic of modern atrocities, whether in the lead up when they can still be prevented or when violence is ongoing. In government, responsibility often fell between the cracks of DfID and the FCO. The FCDO merger, triggered last June by the Prime Minister and ten months before the outcomes of the Integrated Review were public, poses a real risk to some of DfID’s more longstanding (and critical) contributions, but it also creates a genuine opportunity to develop a coordinated approach to conflict and atrocities, which rightly puts a political response to violence at the heart.
The Integrated Review seems to have recognised this opportunity, promising that the UK will “focus on political approaches to conflict resolution, harnessing the full range of government capabilities, with clearly-defined political goals and theories of change.”
The success of this new approach to conflict will depend on political leadership at the ministerial level and within the FCDO, the development of clear-eyed policy, and the extent to which a comprehensive understanding of grievance and marginalisation is embedded across the government. Much of this will be down to the Conflict Centre, announced by the Integrated Review, which will sit within the FCDO and promises to “draw on expertise from across government and beyond to develop and lead a strategic conflict agenda.”
This new Conflict Centre will need to develop an integrated architecture that houses new conflict and atrocity prevention capabilities that coordinate implementation across all of government. This new and more comprehensive approach to conflict must look to integrate currently overlapping—but as yet uncoordinated—agendas such as Women Peace and Security, Protection of Civilians, Human Rights (including sexual orientation and gender identity, freedom of religious belief, and media freedom), human security, the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, modern slavery, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, counter terrorism/ counterinsurgency and Preventing Violent Extremism, and Organised Crime.
Preventing and responding to modern atrocities and conflict requires a holistic, integrated approach, which is precisely what the Integrated Review promises on paper. Ultimately though, it will be actions that determine the extent to which this comes to life. Already, there are concerns that the words of the Integrated Review do not match the deeds of government.
The bones of a new way of thinking and doing have been set out but it will require radical shifts in analysing, hiring, and coordinating within the bureaucracy of government to be effective. If properly built out, this new approach to conflict and atrocities has the potential to be transformative and world-leading. This will only occur if the opportunity to create an integrated approach to the UK’s work in situations of conflict and atrocity is fully taken, if a comprehensive and modern understanding of the drivers of mass violence is embedded into this system, and if the actions of government live up to its rhetorical commitment.