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Will the SDSR be strategic enough about conflict prevention?

23 November 2015 - Larry Attree

Today, the UK Government is publishing its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). In this article, Saferworld’s Larry Attree argues that a key test of the policy will be the extent to which it balances immediate threats with a coherent strategy for preventing conflict in the long term.

Debates in the UK since the Paris attacks have underlined the very high prominence of threats from transnational militants. Indeed, much debate in the run up to the SDSR has focused heavily on such immediate threats: so-called Islamic State, other militant groups and Russia inter alia. But while immediate actions are in the foreground, the SDSR is also an opportunity for the UK to set out a clear and coherent long term vision – to articulate in practice how UK Foreign, Defence and Development policy can exert the strongest possible influence in favour of conflict prevention.

When we consider the factors that underlie headline threats to the UK, it is important to go back to the evidence. Two key points are that:

  • The Global Terrorism Index 2015 released last Tuesday states that all but 0.6% of terrorism occurs in countries suffering conflict and/or political terror.
  • More peaceful countries have been shown to achieve better scores on a very wide range of governance and rights-related measures, including: political democracy, accountability, corruption, honesty of elections, human rights, civic activism, internet access, and ability to express political opinion without fear.

Going into more depth, Saferworld has spent much of the last three years convincing governments worldwide of the very strong and clear evidence that lastingly peaceful societies:

  • work to reduce violence, and ensure the public feels safe
  • ensure fair access to justice, livelihoods, resources and services
  • enable voice and participation in decision making, and constructive resolution of grievances
  • have lower levels of corruption and bribery
  • are not overly exposed to external stresses

In the negotiations on the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals, UK Prime Minister David Cameron played a transformative role in getting other countries to agree that these are indeed global development priorities.

A key test of the Strategic Defence and Security Review published on 23 November is the extent to which it recognises these preventative priorities. If it downplays the importance of underlying factors such as democracy, human rights and corruption, this could create incoherence between the short- and long-term thrust of the UK’s strategic vision. In particular, a short-term push to reinforce ‘allies’ on the security front can undermine efforts to promote anti-corruption, rights and democracy. Likewise, the UK must resist the temptation to sell arms to states where they could fuel conflict and rights abuse.

An optimal SDSR will therefore re-emphasise the importance of championing commitments to democracy, rights and rule of law in all aspects of UK engagement with security threats and conflict contexts. On a practical level, today is also an opportunity for the UK to spell out a real plan for how its growing aid footprint in conflict contexts can work with and for the people of conflict-affected societies. Bottom-up approaches to promoting security, justice and inclusive, fair, accountable governance can empower people to shape the states and societies they live in. It should be the UK’s aspiration to scale up such approaches if it wants to be coherent and strategic about its long-term vision for conflict prevention.

Larry Attree is Head of Policy at Saferworld.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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An optimal SDSR will...re-emphasise the importance of championing commitments to democracy, rights and rule of law in all aspects of UK engagement with security threats and conflict contexts.

Larry Attree