Minister for Peace Report Launch: “Britain Can Become an International Mediator”

by Shaughan Dolan ~ July 17th, 2018. Filed under: Peace Building Blog.

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Conscience was very excited to launch our report ‘Minister for Peace and Disarmament: An Assessment’ by Dr Tim Street in Parliament. Chaired by Ryvka Barnard, Head of Militarism and Security, War on Want, the event went extremely well, with excellent speakers and some very thoughtful questions from the audience.

Author and academic, Dr Tim Street, began by presenting to us what a Minister for Peace & Disarmament (MPD) would actually do, where the idea sprang from, and the possible pros and cons of creating an entirely new government post. Put simply, without the energy and ambition of the anti-war movement, an MPD would never have been proposed, never mind actively campaigned for. The anti-war movement has a chance to finally make its voice heard within the cabinet, on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to the arms trade to post-conflict reconstruction and economic justice. There is also a chance here for Britain to finally construct and implement an ethical foreign policy, something we have never seen before. Human rights, democracy and diplomacy could be placed, by the MPD, at the heart of UK foreign policy.

The MPD would be based out of a small private office operating at cabinet level. In a ‘hub-and-spokes’ arrangement, it would coordinate the efforts of other government departments (Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development etc) to respond to international, and domestic, challenges.

Developed thinking and a shared understanding of what the MPD should entail is crucial to the success of the role. Conscience is already working with other peace groups and the Labour Party in order to influence the shape of the role and will continue to work with the MPD as it goes from idea to reality.

Fabian Hamilton MP echoed much of what Tim said, especially that without the support of the peace movement and public, the creation of an MPD would be impossible. Fabian has long been impassioned by international affairs – he is a long-standing, committed member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – one of the reasons he was asked to be Labour’s first MPD by Jeremy Corbyn in September 2016. In Fabian’s words, ‘to change the world and society you have to be an internationalist’.

Currently, as Shadow MPD, Fabian has a slightly strange job. Given that there is yet no fully-established MPD, he is currently shadowing two departments – and often more. He also understands that in many parts of the world right now, peace is a tall order. As MPD he has to be optimistic and realistic at the same time, and participate in creating a new type of politics that puts human rights first in an effort to stop humanity from destroying itself. He pointed out that we have an incredibly useful tool at our disposal – the widespread and respected English language. We can utilise the wide dispersal of our language across the globe to become a leader in diplomacy

Fabian believes that the single best way for Britain to remain an international power, post-Brexit, is to use our soft power to create peace. We could become international mediators, called in to help others solve conflict all over the globe, participating in peace-keeping, post-conflict reconstruction, and humanitarian emergency relief to name a few. The military can be well-utilised in this area; the top-down command structure makes it easier to provide rapid, short-term response to crises as seen in Myanmar and in the response to the Ebola epidemic. Success for the MPD requires a broad approach, working with everyone to both create peace and change people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of an MPD.

Fabian concluded by saying that he takes the Disarmament portion of his job title seriously. He believes that Trident, and its eventual replacement, are neither independent nor a deterrent, and a colossal waste of money. He and Jeremy Corbyn are working hard to change the Labour Party’s policy on Trident renewal.

Representing our friends at Conciliation Resources, Dr Diana Francis was initially concerned that the MPD was without substance, and could delay real reform in both security and foreign policy. She was, however, encouraged by what she heard from both Tim and Fabian and of the opinion that, should we be offered the opportunity of an MPD, we should grab the opportunity. As a member of the Green Party she hopes to see this become cross-party policy, as well as changing the dominant narrative on national security and British global standing, she hopes that we can all act together for the common good.

Diana spoke of the importance of conflict prevention, and peace-building. We must learn how to deal with conflict without resorting to violence. There is such a thing as ‘productive conflict’; however, once it has descended to violence, all conflict is destructive. She also noted, importantly, that the voices of ordinary people are usually absent from all conversations regarding conflict at the macro scale, and those are the voices that need to be heard, not those of the ‘Old Order’. This requires a genuine approach to peace-building, not the often seen ‘send in the NGOs and carry on with business as usual’ method seen in the past.

Diana proposed that the terms ‘peace’ and ‘security’ should be interchangeable; peace is not merely the absence of violence but covers the presence of things like economic justice/poverty, human rights, and democracy.

Power doesn’t require violence. Violence destroys. Co-operation transforms. However for co-operation to become the global norm, we need real change from all corners of society and real popular support.

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Eddy Canfor-Dumas is a writer and specialist in conflict management, who is currently co-leading the multinational project Understand to Prevent, exploring how to widen the military’s role in conflict prevention and peace-building. He wants to see the MPD embedded in government to such an extent that an incoming government cannot eliminate the department – as we have seen with the Department for International Development for years.

Eddy pointed out that even agreeing with the basic definitions of terms used by the MPD could be challenging; words like peace and conflict can encompass huge variations. As a result, the MPD has the potential to receive too big a remit, which could be disastrous for a fledgling post. He proposes that we identify the Deep Story behind the MPD, and ask the big questions. What does it mean to be a citizen? How does our culture shape our national debate? Militarism is seen everywhere; Trafalgar Square, statues, the Cenotaph and countless other war memorials. However, the Peace Movement has its own Deep Story too; Faslane Peace Camp, the Peace Symbol/CND logo, and white poppies to name a few. Both sides of the debate are informed by their respective histories; care must be taken by both sides to avoid painting the other with personal prejudices and to carefully examine their own Deep Stories to avoid being unhelpfully influenced by them.

The MPD, Eddy agrees with Fabian, should be both inward/domestic and outward/international facing. He decries the fact that NGOs are often ‘captured’ by government, instead of government having its own people to carry out crisis management roles. He is also critical of the fact that the UK does not currently participate in the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centres, or the Swedish-hosted Exercise Viking, both of which train civil and military staff to work together to respond to emergency situations. These exercises and centres also create a space for debate and discussion about peace to be established between nations; it is difficult to work towards something without having a clear definition of it.

As the Shadow MPD, Fabian was given the opportunity to make some closing remarks, and reply to other members of the panel. He agreed that the role of the military will be essential to the success of the MPD. He wants to work with them, and many others, to develop and implement MPD policies, although he agrees that contact with the military needs development. He also agrees with many others, including high ranking military officials, that the British military is experiencing a crisis of confidence, deepened by a funding crisis caused in no small part by the decision to renew Trident. Services for military personnel, from housing to fire response teams on military bases, have been outsourced; in some cases, to nightmares like Capita. Fabian states very clearly that we need to care for our armed forces staff, and properly implement the civil-military covenant.

Q&A

Would conversations with non-state actors fall within the MPD’s remit?

What protections would be in place for individuals within the MPD to prevent discussions with non-state actors turning into political suicide?

How do we tackle the economy being reliant on the arms trade and our hosting of arms fairs?

Diana – Non-violent conflict resolution training should be embedded everywhere in our society. We must be careful when writing off non-state actors as evil-doers, as it simply doesn’t get us anywhere, and NGOs and embassies and other diplomats will play their role before the MPD themselves steps in. We fuel war via the arms trade, making defence diversification a no-brainer – it would even save us money, given the extent to which the arms trade is subsidised.

Eddy – The MPD can be spread quite thinly, given the many people from charities, NGOs, the UN etc that complement the role, and can lay the groundwork for the MPD with non-state actors. Previous to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, arms sales were declining – leading many arms manufacturers themselves to look into defence diversification to keep profits up.

Fabian – Israel-Palestine needs all the help it can get, which means having a real conversation with the non-state actors involved. As they provide public services in many areas they have public support, making engaging with them even more essential. In Northern Ireland, diplomatic backchannels being open to the IRA eventually resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, showing how diplomatic staff do a lot of the initial work before Ministers get involved. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office (which hosts many of these staff) has been cut to the bone over the course of the last eight years. Fabian, along with Emily Thornberry MP, have spent a lot of their time trying to end British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He says we don’t need to sell arms at all. While we can still manufacture them for our own armed forces, to ensure their independence, there is absolutely no need to sell them to other nations, or non-state actors. Defence diversification will prevent job losses, and transform those jobs into life-enhancing roles. We have so much technology that can be used elsewhere, just as we have used GPS and Heads-Up Displays.

Can the MPD engage with and learn from the example of other nations, for example, the Rwandan model of peace-building?

What does the Disarmament in Minister for Peace and Disarmament really mean?

How will the MPD hold the government to account, and ensure the government sticks to its own rules?

Diana – Excellent idea to learn from others, historically British arrogance has got in the way of us doing so.

“We must learn to deal with the residue of violence or we won’t get the world peace we dream of.”

She’s wholly for as much disarmament as we can get. We must look inward to scrutinize what peace really means to us.

Eddy – we must learn from others, but we must also be careful – Paul Kagame is a big opinion splitter. What disarmament means is a huge spectrum. The military, in particular, are sticklers for rules, but when out of sight and desperate even the biggest sticklers can make mistakes so we must remain vigilant.

Tim – a cultural shift needed to disarm – nuclear weapons are embedded in our relationship with NATO, the USA, France etc.

Fabian – The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a great example of non-violent conflict resolution that we can learn from. He actually proposed that his role be titled Minister for Peace and Security, however, he and Jeremy Corbyn remain committed to nuclear disarmament. At the time of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there were 9 nuclear states. When it was written in 1968 they thought that we would have 32 nuclear states by now, however, it remains somewhere between 7 and 9. We need to ensure that existing treaties work and are implemented. The CAEC committee, for arms export control, and the 4 select committees who scrutinize arms licenses, also need to be streamlined and made efficient – it is no good finding out two years down the line that something has gone wrong – so we need to beef up those select committees to ensure the government sticks to its own rules, especially about things like rendition. Senior Ministers must be held to account when they are complicit in breaking the rules of the arms trade. We need to reform how our elected representatives serve the public.

Thank you to everyone who attended this fantastic launch! The Conscience campaign is now busily promoting this in Parliament and in wider society – the next step in the ongoing conversation about how we promote peacebuilding in government.

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