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25 years building safer lives

Saferworld was launched in 1989 as a politically independent research organisation (based in Bristol), in response to the changing nature of conflict around the world. Over the past 25 years we have never stopped learning from and adapting to the contexts we work in.

In the 1980s national security was dominated by Cold War politics and the nuclear arms race, with security defined primarily in terms of protecting the state and its borders. However, the end of the Cold War saw a shift to thinking less about protecting the state and more about the well-being of individuals and communities.

The early years

In 1989 the Nuclear Freeze Campaign changed its name to Saferworld, which was a one-word embodiment of what we hoped to achieve. No longer focusing on nuclear weapons proliferation, we campaigned instead for more effective controls on the proliferation and misuse of conventional arms, which were fuelling civil wars and destroying people’s lives and livelihoods.

The break-up of the Soviet Union had ushered in a period of political unrest and conflict across the region. Former Soviet republics were racing to sell off Cold War arms stockpiles, with small arms fuelling conflict and resulting in more death, injury and disruption than nuclear weapons.

From its beginning Saferworld has been at the forefront of national, regional and global efforts to stop irresponsible arms transfers, working in particular to counter the once-prevailing “if we don’t sell, somebody else will” approach to arms exporting by having States agree common standards. Saferworld played a leading role in advocating for an EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports (which was agreed in 1998). Saferworld was also involved in the very first discussions about developing a fully global and legally-binding arms export control instrument.

Saferworld remained at the heart of the campaign for what became known as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) for the next 20 years. In April 2013 the treaty was adopted overwhelmingly by the UN General Assembly, and since then we have been working for its effective implementation as it moves to become international law on 24 December 2014.

A developing agenda

But while we continued to push for more effective arms transfer controls and action on small arms proliferation during the 1990s, our experience highlighted that these issues were part of a much bigger problem – so Saferworld began looking at the broader elements of conflict such as governance, power, marginalisation, access to resources, and development.

In 1995 Saferworld moved from Bristol to London, and in 2000 a grant from the UK Department for International Development enabled us to expand our policy work and to start in-country programming in areas such as Kenya and the Western Balkans. As we entered our second decade we had moved towards a more comprehensive approach to conflict prevention, led by our growing experience of working in conflict-affected countries, which could inform our international policy and practice.

As we approached the end of our second decade, arms issues remained a priority but were joined by newer areas of work including security and justice development, and conflict sensitive approaches to development. In 2008 we also launched a new programme focusing on China’s role in arms transfers and conflict prevention, and its engagement in Africa.

By this point, we were operational in 15 countries and territories – in Africa, Asia and Europe – in all cases working closely with local partners.

Remaining relevant

Over the most recent five years we have continued to reflect and build on our programme and policy experience. We have started new programmes in the Middle East and North Africa and developed an increasing focus on cross-border and regional conflict in areas such as Central Asia and the Caucasus.

We have also remained at the forefront of conflict prevention thinking and practice, developing work on the peacebuilding role of emerging powers; the post-2015 development agenda; the interrelationships between gender, peace and security – and most recently on conflict drivers such as illicit finance and militarised responses to security threats, and new approaches to ‘justice as prevention’.

View our interactive timeline highlighting key global events and Saferworld milestones.

Download our 2014-17 strategic plan

Read our multimedia Annual Review of 2015-16