Comment & analysis

Clarifying the role of UK defence actors in preventing conflict

13 May 2014 Robert Parker

Ahead of 2015’s UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, more discussion is needed to develop and articulate a common vision of the defence community’s role in preventing conflict overseas, says Robert Parker.

A group of parliamentarians recently released a report on how the UK might better manage its interventions overseas. The report, released by the Defence Select Committee, primarily calls for clarity on why and how the UK intervenes militarily. The report’s call for greater transparency is welcome – as is its request for measures to improve the effectiveness of the Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) and the International Defence Engagement Strategy (IDES), as part of the UK’s wider approach to intervention. However, parts of the report raise concerns about how the role of defence actors might be interpreted within a whole-of-government response to conflict. There still needs to be greater debate to define an appropriate role for defence actors in the broader concept of ‘upstream conflict prevention’ overseas beyond military intervention.

With the backdrop of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Army and other defence actors in the UK are seeking to define a new role for themselves, including through engagement in ‘upstream conflict prevention’ as outlined in the BSOS. It is important that any future non-combat role is demand-driven and tries to match the expertise and capabilities of UK defence actors with the real needs of conflict-affected populations on the ground, using a ‘developmental approach’ to UK intervention.

As argued in a previous comment piece published in May 2013, Saferworld believes that the interests of long-term peace and development are not best served by defence actors engaging in development activities themselves. The government and the Defence Select Committee should make it clear that defence actors should work alongside DfID and FCO colleagues to contribute to an environment that is conducive to long-term peace and development using their relevant military capabilities and expertise as appropriate. This could include, for example, technical and logistical assistance with demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programmes; support to security sector reform including defence transformation; small arms and light weapons control programmes; Physical Security and Stockpile Management activities; and defence diplomacy.

However, supporting overseas defence actors through capacity building and technical assistance is not entirely risk free. UK defence engagement with security institutions overseas should be informed by thorough and ongoing conflict and political economy analysis to ensure that they contribute to long-term peace and security that serves the interests of the wider population and avoids entrenching and empowering an abusive or politicised security apparatus. This cannot be done in isolation from efforts to support good governance, legitimate political processes, and transparent, accountable institutions.

More discussion is needed around the appropriate role of UK defence actors in overseas intervention before the next Strategic Defence and Security Review. Although the committee’s report focuses primarily on more traditional ‘boots on the ground’ military intervention, interpretation of the role of defence in the broader notion of ‘upstream conflict prevention’ varies across parliament and government departments. The committee’s call for the government to articulate common and shared definitions related to intervention is a useful opportunity to clarify the envisaged role for the defence community in the future of UK overseas intervention.

A whole-of-government approach to UK engagement overseas brings with it an inevitable risk of differing departmental perspectives on the form such engagement should take. As we move towards the 2015 UK Strategic Defence and Security Review, it will be crucial to ensure that the UK’s vision for engagement in conflict-affected and fragile contexts is centred around improving the lives of those most-affected by conflict and insecurity in the long-term by promoting sustainable, positive peace.

Robert Parker is Saferworld’s Director of Policy, Advocacy and Communications.

Read Saferworld's submission to the Defence Committee's inquiry.

Read more about our work on conflict prevention

“Defence actors should work alongside DfID and FCO colleagues to contribute to an environment that is conducive to long-term peace and development using their relevant military capabilities and expertise as appropriate”

Robert Parker