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A response to the Integrated Review

Article by Dr Kate Ferguson

March 18, 2021

A response to the Integrated Review

There is a lot to digest in the much awaited publication of the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review (IR) of UK international policy. It is a weighty enough document of over 100 pages and there is more evidence of strategic thinking than sceptics projected but inevitably there are more top lines than details. That’s the nature of these documents – a vision that sounds great on paper but how these shifts in understanding, prioritisation and implementation evolve will be the real measure of the IR’s success. Or, as the outcomes paper says itself, ‘what Global Britain means in practice is best defined by actions rather than words.’


I called in various forums and submissions to the IR, including in an article for the Foreign Policy Centre, for atrocity prevention to be integrated at the heard of UK foreign policy and for the narrow approach to conflict to be broken open.[1] I wasn’t alone in these recommendations; the Foreign Affairs Select Committee suggested the IR prioritise mediation, conflict resolution and atrocity prevention and the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group called for a national strategy.[2]


While the outcomes paper falls short of committing to a comprehensive strategy on mass atrocities, it does promise greater emphasis on atrocity prevention. And to be fair to the authors, it is perhaps not a great surprise that more was not fleshed out in the one page dedicated to the UK’s approach to conflict and stability within the new strategic framework. As the various sub-strategies are drawn up and the merger of the FCDO is finalised, we should expect to see this commitment built out across the new architectures of government, properly integrated throughout new UK policy and training, and the creation of new positions of appropriate seniority in the FCDO and other relevant departments.


The new framework also sets out a prioritisation of ‘grievances, political marginalisation and criminal economies’ as part of ‘a more integrated approach to government work on conflict and instability.’ This signals a critical and very welcome shift in the understanding of where much modern violence comes from. The UK approach to conflict was always 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.[3] 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 too often absent from UK development priorities and prevailing HMG conceptualisation of where complex violent contexts come from.


The focus on criminal economies is also good news. We know that 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 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 opens up for the UK and its networks, from a more creative use of the new sanctions regime to programme design that seeks to interrupt the recruitment of potential perpetrators. I would like to see this priority area being joined up with the UK’s approach to serious and organised crime, bringing in the services of the intelligence agencies and the mapping exercises that track and trace the networks of non-state actors, smuggling routes, illicit cash flows, and so on. Modern atrocities, particularly those that are identity-based, can very often be understood best as a type of organised crime and many of the principles of prevention and response are transferable.


Another welcome shift in the approach to conflict is the commitment to ‘focus on political approaches to conflict resolution’, again something that has for so long been absent in how the UK responds to violence, with DFID often preferring instead to focus almost entirely on the humanitarian consequences. If this new focus does indeed signal a willingness to get into the political reasons why modern conflicts and atrocities occur, we should expect to see a much needed investment in the diplomatic corps, analysts, civil society relationships, and a willingness to be more creative with the tools and levers at the UK’s disposal. The FCDO merger, while posing a real risk to some of DFID’s more longstanding (and crucial) contributions, does pose a genuine opportunity to develop a coordinated approach to conflict and atrocities, and which rightly puts a political response to violence at the heart.


Perhaps the most important indication the paper gives of a change in approach is the prevention-first framing and a focus in earlier ‘upstream’ priorities, which connect strongly with the central thread throughout the whole document of resilience. The UK’s overriding approach to conflict and mass atrocities has been one of response, of firefighting, and consequently has often resulted in missing opportunities to help mitigate risks. Whether in Rakhine in Myanmar in 2017, in Central African Republic in 2014, or Syria in 2011 those windows where risks against populations could still be mitigated or stemmed slipped by before the UK had properly recognised the trajectory of violence.


Throughout, the IR promises an integrated approach to national security ‘that covers the full lifecycle of risk: anticipation, prevention, preparation, response and recovery’. This has the potential to bring together policy threads that are usually seen as being disparate or unrelated. The promise of deeper integration across government builds on the Fusion Doctrine introduced in the 2018 National Security Capability Review, which encouraged more effective and joined up approaches to threats like serious and organised crime. The potential gains are significant: ‘A more integrated approach supports faster decision-making, more effective policy-making and more coherent implementation by bringing together defence, diplomacy, development, intelligence and security, trade and aspects of domestic policy in pursuit of cross-government, national objectives.’ If this big promise can be properly built in to how the UK monitors, mitigates, and prepares for violent crises, and if Government fully commits to ‘acting upstream to tackle risks at source’ – from mass atrocities to climate action as well as efforts to disrupt transnational organised crime groups, this prevention-first approach to policy thinking will save lives, money and political capital.


And so even in the brief outlines of a new approach to conflict and resilience we can see the influence of the principles of atrocity prevention, not only in recognising grievances, marginalisation and criminal economies as priority areas, but also in the commitment to invest in political approaches to disputes (something parts of DFID always pushed back against), and the overall emphasis on prevention and resilience (something that was never enough pronounced in DFID and something FCO never thought was their responsibility).


But the success of this new approach to conflict will depend on political leadership at the ministerial level and within the civil service, the development of clear-eyed sub strategies, and the extent to which an understanding of grievance and marginalisation is embedded across HMG. Much of this will be down to the new Conflict Centre within the FCDO that promises will ‘draw on expertise from across government and beyond to develop and lead a strategic conflict agenda, harnessing the breadth of conflict and stability capabilities and working with partners to increase our impact in preventing, managing and resolving conflict in priority regions.’


Within this new Conflict Centre we’ll want to see a fully integrated architecture that houses new atrocity prevention systems and capabilities but coordinates implementation beyond the conflict corps and across government. This new approach to violence prevention and civilian protection should look to integrate currently overlapping – but not coordinated – 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), peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and counter terrorism/counterinsurgency, Preventing Violent Extremism, and Organised Crime.


Preventing and responding to modern atrocities and conflict requires a holistic, integrated approach, which is what the IR promises on paper but ultimately 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.[4] The steep cuts that have already been announced jar with many of the promises laid out in the IR. A commitment to tighten focus on the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) by prioritising its resources on the foundational link between stability, resilience and security is only welcome if it is matched by a commitment to invest in a wider breadth of civil society organisations and move away from the large contracts with private enterprises that lack the fundamental understanding of the very root causes the new approach to conflict promises to tackle. It seems natural that the Government needs to go back to community building and away, finally, from strategic communications-based interventions that take up so much of the CSSF budget.


The creation of an Open Societies directorate within FCDO should be an additional forum where the new commitment to address grievances and marginalisation could be embedded; certainly if the UK’s new emphasis on  atrocity prevention does not sit across Open Societies as well as the new Conflict Centre, the FCDO will risk replicating the cracks between DFID and FCO, between which the implementation of the atrocity prevention and human rights – rather than their superficial promotion – so often fell.


It is important that upholding human rights has been retained as a core principle of continuation but it’s far harder to see what is new or bold here. There are hints at what this change in approach towards conflict and human rights might look like, including the recognition of the ‘increasingly blurring the boundaries between war and peace’ and the recognition that conflict and instability will remain prevalent and likely increase ‘unless concerted action is taken to address underlying political, social, economic and environmental drivers, especially in fragile states.’ The relationship between a commitment to confront marginalisation and prioritise political approaches to resolution will inevitably require frameworks of human rights, identity-based violence, and atrocity prevention; if this work does not become better integrated the impact of both the Conflict Centre and the Open Societies Directorate will be stymied from the beginning.


The promise that the thematic priority of open societies will be ‘characterised by effective governance and resilience at home’ signals a generational shift we’ve seen in recent years in the ways in an increasing number of NGOs and politicians in global north democracies have come to articulate the impact of climate change, conflict, and threats to democracy, finally recognising the extent to which these crises are felt ‘at home’, not only ‘abroad’.  But the ‘whole-of-government approach to protecting democracy in the UK’ must be just that, recognising that a good governance agenda – whether here in the UK or in fragile states – requires an understanding of grievance and marginalisation that assesses who is included and who is excluded from democratic processes and trust-building activities. (Who does introducing voter ID hit hardest?) And if the Government is serious about narrowing the conceptual and practical disconnect between its domestic and foreign policies it must learn to prize consistency over political interests. (Does the UK champion international law or undermine it?) It will be important to watch what it means for the FCDO and the UK’s domestically facing departments as this commitment to more closely link domestic and international action is implemented.


This commitment to build resilience at home and abroad, and the changes in thinking around modern conflict will necessarily come together in the creation of a cross-government Situation Centre in the Cabinet Office, intended to ‘anticipate and respond to crises’. This has the potential to centre prevention-thinking in the heart of government. Knowing what to look for, how to analyse the information and how to ‘raise the alarm’ are crucial steps for successful early warning and early action. Let’s hope this new Situation Centre includes a much needed early warning system, capable of monitoring and analysing threats to national and global security. The absence of an internal prevention analysis system, incorporating indicators of grievance, trust, and resilience, and capable of reporting on real-time trends of exclusion and violence (and other threats) has inhibited UK thinking and policy but the IR promises to address these gaps.


Perhaps the big bump in funds for the intelligence services could facilitate a more integrated relationship between MI5, MI6 and UK prevention thinking at home and abroad? Whoever undertakes the work, the current analysis gap the Situation and Conflict Centres have the potential to bridge require human expertise and bureaucratic coordination rather than big data, statistical modelling. The good news is that doesn’t require big budgets


Overall there is a lot to welcome. The dominant threads of resilience and prevention promise a genuine shift from the prevailing policy. Emphasis on building trusted governance, government capabilities, social cohesion, and resilience while confronting marginalisation and grievances signals a new logic is informing the new approach.


That is not to say that there are not gaps that will need to be addressed. Colleagues in the development sector will not be reassured by what was published this week. The biggest tension in UK foreign policy between values and trade was left unaddressed and unresolved. The paper sets out a siloed approach that contradicts its fundamental vision of an integrated international policy.


The paragraphs on China are some of the weakest in the whole document. Acknowledging that the UK has responded ‘to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang through measures to ensure that British organisations are neither complicit in nor profiting from them’, while simultaneously committing to pursuing a state-level economic relationship that would risk the UK Government becoming complicit in or profiting from CCP atrocities undermines what is strongest about the new vision for the UK in the world.


How can the UK ‘continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected’? It is difficult to see how HMG ‘will not hesitate to stand up for our values’ while also committing to pursuing a trade deal. It’s a fundamental hypocrisy that will need to be interrogated. China is difficult for the UK and there are disagreement within government as well as in the Conservative party as to how to navigate the relationship. As Paul Goodman wrote in Conservative Home some weeks ago, HMG needs a strategy on China, a strategy on modern mass atrocities, and needs to understand how and when the two come together.[5]


The UK deserves an international policy capable of predicting and preventing crises as well as responding to them, fit to meet challenges it cannot yet foresee as well as those it can. If properly built out, this new vision has the potential to establish a prevention-first policy mindset as well as policy coherence across currently highly diffused agendas. I have long argued that prevention – of atrocities and of all global threats – is a matter of both national security and national interest for all States, and therefore requires state-level as well as multilateral commitment: the outcomes of the IR suggest just such a pivot in how the UK will prepare for, predict, prevent, and respond to threats. But it will require radical shifts in thinking, hiring, and coordination within the bureaucracy of government.


As COVID-19’s economic and political consequences deepen, climate events become more common, and identity politics worsen, widespread and systematic identity-based violence, including mass atrocities, will become increasingly frequent. The same nexus will drive large-scale population movements, which will continue to drive exclusionary populism in developed and developing democracies. The relevance of this complex threat nexus, as emblematic of international policy, will become increasingly evident to changing electorates. The outcomes of the Integrated Review and the changes brought by the FCDO merger to the Government architecture indicate a commitment to embed the capabilities and systems to meet this projected increase in identity-based violence and mass atrocities but there is a long way to go.


The new approach to conflict and resilience has the potential to be transformative not just for UK policy but in the reform of how likeminded states approach the drivers and propellants of violence. Of today’s major and emerging crises, the vast majority – including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Venezuela, and Xinjiang – are driven, at least in part, by the deliberate violent targeting of civilian groups by political elites. Systematic or widespread discrimination against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, age, disability or class has not become a challenge of the past but a common phenomenon of our modern world. Identity-based violence occurs in some form or another in all societies and as such, its prevention is something needed everywhere all of the time. The IR now promises that better understanding of where this violence comes from and how the UK and its networks can contribute to its prevention will be fully integrated across the composite parts of government.


The coming weeks and months will therefore be critical and I hope that it will see the Government, finally, opening up again after a period of exceptionally closed civil society relations to ensure the full breadth of expertise is able to help shape this new prevention-first era of UK international policy.


Dr Kate Ferguson is a foreign policy expert driving a new approach to preventing identity-based violence in the UK and internationally. In 2014 she co-founded Protection Approaches where she is Co-Executive Director and which works with communities, civil society and governments to transform how identity-based violence is understood and prevented. In 2017 Protection Approaches established and now convenes the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group, a network of some 25 NGOs, research institutions and experts. Kate is Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Her book Architectures of Violence: The Command Structures of Modern Atrocities will be published by Hurst and Oxford University Press later this year. She tweets @WordsAreDeeds.


[1] Protection Approaches and United Nations Association – UK: Written evidence to Foreign Affairs Select Committee (INR0087),; Dr Kate Ferguson, Putting atrocity prevention at the heart of British foreign policy, FPC, September 2020,

[2] Foreign Affairs Committee, A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy, Fourth Report of Session 2019-21, House of Commons, October 2020,; Protection Approaches, Submission to the Integrated Review of UK international policy, August 2020,

[3] Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention, House of Commons, September 2018,

[4] Catherine Philp, Ignore human rights and strike trade deals, Dominic Raab told officials, The Times, March 2021,

[5] Paul Goodman, Who’s in charge of the Government’s clattering China train? It’s heading for a crash., Conservative Home, February 2021,

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