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By BAE Systems Plc

Brexit could give a Labour government a stronger hand in global peace-making

4 min read

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of armed conflicts around the world and in the deaths and suffering they cause in the last five years.

It is not just the wars in Gaza and Ukraine which dominate the headlines but also the conflicts we spend less time thinking about in Ethiopia and Sudan, Myanmar and Yemen and the threat of war from Guyana to North Korea which cause massive humanitarian and economic damage to those who can least bear it.

Those wars may feel far away but their impact rarely remains contained within borders. They often pose a direct threat to our economy and our security. The flow of drugs onto the UK’s streets passes from Colombia and Venezuela through the conflict zones of West Africa, fuelling extremism along the way. The Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea disrupt maritime trade into Europe, threatening a resurgence in inflation. 

But our response, both as a country and within the wider international community, has been woefully inadequate. Time after time we fail to learn from our previous mistakes. If we had known in 2014 that full scale war in Ukraine would break out 8 years later, we would have invested far more in trying to prevent it. If we had foreseen the present horrific conflict in Gaza, we would have paid more than lip service to pursuing a political process over the previous ten years. The truth is that we have confined too many of these conflicts to the ‘too difficult’ category and we are not prepared to make the investment of blood and treasure necessary in time to prevent them taking off.

Nearly a decade after the Brexit campaign, it is a sad truth that Britain has lost much of its relevance as a foreign policy actor. Capitals from Washington to Addis Ababa are no longer scratching their heads and asking themselves what do the Brits think. But in the case of resolving conflicts - almost uniquely - Brexit presents an opportunity. Outside the EU, we have greater freedom of manoeuvre, particularly with regard to what groups we talk to and how. This does not mean we have to pretend to become neutral like Switzerland or Norway. But there is more space to establish back channels and Track 2 and Track 1.5 processes with armed groups and non-state actors. The need to do so is a fundamental lesson from Northern Ireland: delivering peace means talking to people with whom you fundamentally disagree.

We have national assets and experience with which to make a difference in this field. We have a global diplomatic service and a permanent seat on the UN security council. There are many talented Brits leading international and civil society organisations working on peace, but they have been too often under-used by government.

Outside the EU, we have greater freedom of manoeuvre, particularly with regard to what groups we talk to and how. 

A new Labour Together report, ‘Progressive Realist Peace-making’ by Christopher Thornton, published this week, sketches out how we might pursue a more significant role on conflict prevention and resolution as a central plank of a new government’s foreign policy. But to do so we need a government with the political will and risk appetite to put those resources to work within a new plan. It does not require the government itself to take on the delicate work of engaging with non-state armed groups – that can be done at arm’s length by individuals and NGOs. But it does require a political commitment to making this work a priority, increased funding, a new methodology for the FCDO and the determination to stay engaged for the long term.  

As the paper argues, this must start with a determination that we are prepared to engage for the long term. And that must be backed by a clearly understood rationale for where we act, based on a combination of moral and pragmatic considerations. Thornton makes a compelling case for greater British focus in particular on Libya, Yemen and the Sahel.

If Labour wins the next election and David Lammy becomes the next Foreign Secretary, there will be a huge opportunity for the UK to reclaim its international reputation as an engaged, competent, law-abiding country. A hard-headed focus on peace-making could be at the centre of this approach.

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