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Ensuring the UK’s new conflict framework successfully promotes peace

Article by Larry Attree, Teresa Dumasy and Julian Egan

July 15, 2021

Ensuring the UK’s new conflict framework successfully promotes peace

Amid the (warranted) controversy over UK aid cuts and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, little attention has been paid to the Government’s quiet development of a new strategic agenda for tackling conflict.[1] This is a big deal: how conflict is handled – whether in Sierra Leone or Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq, Libya or Syria – has proven a defining foreign policy issue for all recent UK governments. Nonetheless, until now, the UK has lacked a comprehensive cross-government approach. As international peacebuilding organisations, we believe a new strategic framework will only herald progress if it addresses the issues driving conflict, takes a people-centred approach, successfully manages competing UK priorities, and is backed by consistent, effective political and financial investments in peace.


Addressing Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently, the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the Government’s welcome commitment to tackling conflict, and highlighted a range of potential areas in which the UK could add value, from supporting mediation and reintegrating child combatants to promoting accountability. To be effective, whatever form this new ‘strategic agenda’ takes, the UK approach needs to shift the emphasis from reacting to and containing the fallout from conflict to preventing it and placing a ‘greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict’, as promised in the Government’s April Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.[2] Looking back on two decades of UK engagement in Afghanistan that has cost over £1 billion and claimed the lives of over 450 UK personnel, the pitfalls of engaging in conflict settings without a clear plan for addressing the core issues perpetuating violence, such as economic and political exclusion and state oppression, are plain to see.[3]


The UK also needs to put people, their needs and their agency, at the heart of its strategy. Advancing peace is less about ensuring governments and security forces are strong enough to contain threats than it is about helping people feel safe, ensuring they are free to participate in decision-making, can access services, have a decent standard of living and have recourse against corruption and injustice. The striking images of the female protestors during the revolution in Sudan shows the ability of communities, civil society and protest movements to bring about change when these needs aren’t met. Any international approach whether defence, diplomacy or development which doesn’t support people’s ability to address their own needs will not build lasting peace.


Tackling the complex causes of conflict means partnering with and supporting communities, civil society groups and champions of peace within conflict affected countries. The new framework needs to reflect this in a people-centred approach to designing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating and learning from UK engagement.


The UK also needs to be better at managing competing UK interests. Failing to reconcile its goals of counter-terrorism, defence exports and trade partnerships with the promotion of open societies and conflict prevention can radically undermine UK interests.


Look at assistance to different overseas security forces. The UK’s Defence Command Paper suggests increasing efforts to ‘train and operate alongside allies and partners’ as a contribution to conflict prevention. However, revelations about UK training for SARS officers infamous for extrajudicial killings in Nigeria, and UK support for Malian security forces despite their involvement in abuses, highlight the dilemmas that the UK needs to resolve.[4] Human rights abuses and authoritarianism including by UK allies can drive new rounds of violence and escalate conflict.


The new strategy must ensure that the Government better factors in the long-term impacts of its decisions on peace and rights. This means having clear procedures for prioritising conflict prevention when taking difficult decisions, revisiting these decisions regularly through open-minded policy conversations exploring the full range of perspectives and impacts, and strengthening norms of transparency and accountability.


For the new conflict agenda to succeed, it needs to be backed by strategic financial and political investments in conflict prevention. Research shows there is strong cross-party and public support for this.[5]


Going forward, the UK has an opportunity to use its influence, via the United Nations and elsewhere, to champion peace processes that are much more inclusive of women, young people and other marginalised groups. We know that when women are able to participate in peace processes the resulting agreements are more likely to be implemented and sustained.[6] This political commitment should be shown through robust diplomatic engagement in partnership with others to push back on the malign, cynical and abusive role in conflicts currently played by many states.


Building lasting peace and preventing further conflict takes time – first and foremost on the part of generations of people in conflict affected countries, and also from international partners who support them. It is vital to extend the time horizons of UK investments in peace programmes and people-centred partnerships, and insulate them from political winds and annual budgetary fluctuations. This means restoring spending commitments on aid. At the same time, all aid should, at a minimum not exacerbate conflict, but rather reinforce the conditions for peace, as it can do in places such as Ukraine to ease inter-group tensions, or in Bangladesh, to tackle gender-based violence.[7]


Ultimately, the effectiveness of critically important policies like the UK’s new conflict framework could be better guaranteed if the Government proactively engaged with the UK’s leading experts and practitioners – and civil society from countries affected – when developing and implementing them. Complex problems require collaborative thinking and responses. A strategic framework for conflict that incorporates these essential elements can enhance the effectiveness of UK’s approach to conflict, which is in everyone’s interest.


Larry Attree, Head of Global Policy and Advocacy, Saferworld

Teresa Dumasy, Director of Research, Advisory and Policy, Conciliation Resources

Julian Egan, Director of Advocacy and Communications, International Alert


[1] Saferworld, Joint Conciliation Resources, International Alert and Saferworld statement on the impact of UK aid cuts on peacebuilding efforts and our partners around the world, June 2021,

[2] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,, March 2021,

[3] Julian Borger, British troops were twice as likely to be killed in Afghaninstan as US forces, The Guardian, May 2021,

[4] Emmanuel Akinwotu, UK government ‘needs to come clean’ on funding for Nigerian police, The Guardian, November 2020,

[5] Conciliation Resources, Public support for peacebuilding, September 2017,

[6] Jana Krause, Wener Krause & Piia Branfors, Women’s Participation in Peace Negotiations and the Durability of Peace, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, Volume 44, Issue 6, August 2018,

[7] Marina Nagai, Synthesis Situational Assessment Report, International Alert, February 2019,; Saferworld, Doing right by women and girls in Cox’s Bazar: gendering perspectives on social cohesion, July 2021,

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