For the last eight years I have been working in the peacebuilding field, engaging with a variety of complex conflicts, ranging from religious divides within countries to militaristic stand-offs between countries. I’ve observed that trust-building and dialogue over the long-term, although difficult and time-consuming to establish, are most likely to transform or avert violent conflict, which mostly arises when there is significant inequality, marginalisation of certain communities and people’s rights over-ridden.
Recently I have been working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a US Quaker organisation that works to promote peace and justice. It uses a model of ‘shared security’, believing that one party cannot be secure unless all others are.
The traditional framing of conflict is based on an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, posing an external threat that needs to be defeated, while maintaining control over resources. The strategy to address the conflict is based on coercive measures, with violence legitimised as the last resort. The ‘fight’ may lead to peace, but not a just or lasting peace. It would be a peace that needs to be maintained with coercion and may re-emerge when the ‘loser’ regroups and recovers resources.
A model using shared security approaches conflict as a shared problem which can be solved with shared solutions, through a collective effort. The process has to address the long-term root causes, with recognition of the complex and unique details of the context. The methods need to be non-violent and inclusive. The ends reflect the means in that violence tends to beget violence, whereas peaceful means can reach peaceful ends.
The UK has yet to integrate such thinking in its approach to defence and security. The current national security strategy (NSS) has three core objectives: to protect UK citizens, to project our global influence, and to promote our prosperity. Typical arguments used in Parliament to support arms sales and military interventions reference the UK as a benign force that can bring about peace, arms exports secure UK jobs in the industry, and our role to give support when an ‘ally’ is engaged in the fight against terrorism.
This approach prioritises UK jobs over the lives of the citizens of other countries, does not consider the daily security needs of the Yemeni people, for example, and takes a short-term approach which doesn’t appreciate the complex roots of the issues.
A suggestion for a new UK security strategy would firstly define security, which the NSS does not do. I am in full agreement with the UK ‘Rethinking Security’ network, and I suggest, as they do, the following should be fundamental to a security planning:
- Security means shared freedom from fear and want, and the freedom to live in dignity.
- Security is a common right. Security cannot be gained for one group of people at another group’s expense. It rests on an appreciation of our interdependence, on solidarity rather than dominance.
- Security is a long-term practice, underpinned by just relationships and systems. It grows or withers according to how just and inclusive society is.
- Security is a shared responsibility. Its challenges belong to all of us, not only to a small group of elite decision makers.
A progressive security policy for the UK should include the following commitments:
- Investment in the seven categories of human security for both UK and other citizens. These are economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security, as detailed by the UN.
- To address systemic drivers of conflict, in the UK and beyond, which include inequality, marginalisation, climate change and militarism.
- Invest in building equitable relationships based on justice and mutuality that enable the collaboration required to address these challenges.
The approach involves collaboration and action from the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Home Office, as well as Departments of Health, Social Care, the Equalities Office and so on. We can learn from the Swedish security strategy goal of upholding the rule of law and human rights, as well as Norway’s foreign policy commitment to promoting peace.
Some may argue that the above proposition is naïve - but our current militaristic approach to conflict is naïve. The idea that bombing Syria increases security for UK citizens is clearly flawed. We know from UK military engagement in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan that military intervention alone is not effective, and wars once started are difficult to end. If our foreign and defence policy is based on these approaches, our strategic early intervention would defuse violent situations before they reach a pitch at which violence becomes inevitable.
We need to develop a new paradigm in which the UK is a global participant committed to long-term peaceful solutions which protect the rights of all people. If we do engage militarily, the aims of the intervention must be explicit, and are monitored in the same way that the Department for International Development monitors the impacts of development grants around the world.