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foreign policy

It doesn’t matter what side of the political divide you are on, how you judge history, or whether you are for a two-state solution or not. The effects of conflict on the children of Gaza are heart breaking.

In an excellent article for the Guardian yesterday, Harriet Sherwood gives us the statistics: in less than a month, at least 447 children killed and 2744 injured, according to the UN. And in a tiny area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.7 million where 43.5% are aged 0-14 years and two-thirds are below 25 years, there are literally hundreds of thousands of babies and young children terrified on a daily basis by the conflict and destruction unfolding around them on a daily basis.

Any child above six years old in Gaza has now been exposed to three wars: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 and the current Operation Protective Edge.

After the first of these wars, a study by the Gaza community health programme found that three-quarters of children over the age of six were suffering from one or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with almost ten per cent exhibiting every symptom. This included sleep disturbances, nightmares, night terror, regressive behaviour, bed wetting, becoming more restless and hyperactive, refusal to sleep alone, overwhelmed by fears, and heightened aggression. A study by the UN following Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 found that 82 per cent of children were either continuously or usually in fear of imminent death, 82 per cent felt angry, and 97 per cent felt insecure.

We all know that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is long, complicated and fraught with difficulties. Both sides blame one another for the death and terror facing children in Gaza. And Israelis call for understanding about the terror they face, too. So, what does that mean? Where does that leave us?

I don’t care for complex political arguments when babies and children are dying and being terrorised, whatever the reason, whoever is to blame. ‘Complicated’, in my experience, usually means inertia, inaction, and the continuation of ‘business/conflict as usual’.

In the short term there are some glimmers of hope – the current ceasefire seems to be holding up, allowing desperately needed humanitarian assistance to be delivered. Talks between both sides have at least not yet broken down.  The UN is stepping up to the mark, offering international leadership. While all this is to be welcomed, we simply can’t return to the same old stalemate.

It’s time to abandon ‘complicated’ for a simple political analysis of the situation – enough is enough.

On Tuesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turns 50. Formed by Pedro Antonio Marin Marin aka Marulanda on 27 May 1964, they have been embroiled in one of South America’s deadliest battles for control of the land, the people, and the soul of the great country of Colombia.

For decades they have claimed the title of ‘revolutionaries’, fighting for the common man and woman. In reality, they have brought terror and violence to a country that, given its natural resources, should be the success story of the continent.

I have been interested in the FARC for 18 years, ever since my uncle was kidnapped on a road between Medellin and Bogota on his way to work in January 1996. It wasn’t the FARC that held him for 7.5 months, but the ELN, or National Liberation Army. But in the years that have followed, I have interviewed many surviving hostages who were held by the FARC. From what I could tell of their testimony, the FARC was willing to use torture to control the minds and bodies of their captives, more cruelly than anything I ever heard from those who had been held by the ELN.

As the FARC prepares for its birthday party, it will not be the only one wondering if life really does begin at 50. The peace process continues in Cuba, with more optimism than has shrouded the ones that preceded it, but still caution is still the order of the day. Literally billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of boots on the ground have failed to kill off the FARC. Its grip remains on certain parts of the country. It can no longer boast 20,000 members, but it is estimated to be 7,000 strong and enjoy the support of those who rely on it for their protection and livelihood.

The results of today’s Presidential election might have a bearing on whether Tuesday should be a party or a wake for the FARC. President Santos hopes to stay in office and continue the peace talks. His main opponent, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has threatened to pull the plug on the talks, or at least impose conditions that would render then untenable.

Colombia – yet again – finds itself at a crossroads. And, as usual, peace doesn’t look like the most likely destination.

Here is an article I have with Ross Frenett on HuffPo arguing for the need to invest resources in films, campaigns and digital activities to push back on the messages that violent extremists use to attract young people to travel to Syria to fight. 

Today’s report by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee warns of the alarming number of westerners traveling to Syria to fight and calls for stronger efforts to counter the recruitment narratives of extremists. As Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, warned “without the Government helping peer-led projects to tackle this problem, many more may be lost to radicalisation.”

Also launched today is a report we have written for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, (ISD) in which we outline the nature of the problem and what must be done to stem the tide of western citizens willing to become so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in countries, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Drawing on research conducted by ISD on the effectiveness of counter-narratives, our own database of suspected foreign fighters, and interviews with members of the Against Violent Extremism who have travelled and fought in previous conflicts, the report offers a concrete roadmap for success in pushing back on the kinds of extremist messages that draw people to places such as Syria to fight.

We define three distinct messengers that need to be countered:

Violent extremist groups: The formal propaganda wings of the armed movements engage with potential supporters, produce propaganda and provide justification for their actions.

Their supporters: There are many associated groups and networks that use their websites, forums and social media accounts to support and encourage the actions of groups that employ foreign fighters, celebrate martyrs and produce large quantities of propaganda. These are, in most cases, more influential than the violent extremist groups; a recent ICSR report found that two of the most influential supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian Jihad were not even based in Syria, but were in fact western supporters with a strong social media presence.

Individual foreign fighters: Some foreign fighters tweet from the frontline, sharing their experiences; everything from accounts of their daily routines, to reflections on life on the frontline. The most famous example is the late Omar Hammami, an American Jihadist killed in Somalia. Others, such as Abu Fulan al-Muhajir, tweet their experiences from Syria in English.

Just as there is no single profile of violent extremists, there is no one discernible ‘type’ of foreign fighter. From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.

In response, counter-messages or counter-narratives need to mirror these motivating factors. Based on the types of propaganda that are being used to convince young people to travel, we identify five main areas of counter-messaging:

You are being duped – don’t be taken in by their propaganda: the idea of betrayal is an especially strong and compelling one for young people. This message could focus on how potential recruits are being misled by propaganda for example, images of dead children taken from other places and presented as happening in the theatre of conflict or stories about al-Shabaab’s extensive use of the forced recruitment of children.

We are not all in this together – there are as many divisions as bonds between different Islamic factions. As noted above, the idea of camaraderie and unity is one stressed very often by those groups that utilise foreign fighters. Highlighting the vicious infighting between and within groups could go a long way towards countering this message. This could consist of examples of foreign fighters finding themselves under fire from other Islamic groups rather than the ‘enemy’, or even examples of foreign fighters who were betrayed and murdered in the conflict zone by the very groups they traveled to join. The most famous and powerful example of this is the American foreign fighter, Omar Hammam, who even live tweeted one attempt on his life.

This is not an Islamic struggle – you do not have a ‘duty’ to fight. This could include messages about why fighting is not justified within Islam, why it is not a ‘just war’, and therefore bringing into question the Islamic duty to fight.

You are useless and you’ll get in the way – do something more constructive instead: This message could be unpacked in a number of ways: local fighters explaining that foreign fighters will be a liability on the frontline, and may not be allowed to fight anyway; citizens explaining that their need to protect foreigners will put them in danger; refugees on the indulgence of foreigners wanting to have adventure when there are women and children starving in refugee camps. This message could also give very clear ‘calls to action’: collect money, raise awareness, work for political dialogue, lobby your political representatives, etc.

Conditions on the frontline are terrible – it is not the adventure you are expecting. This message could focus on the reality of poor conditions in these conflict zones, including testimonies from returned foreign fighters, and accounts from journalists or locals on the ground. It could include a ‘call to action’ linked to the adventure motivation, such as volunteering in other Islamic/Muslim majority countries or regions.

The problem of foreign fighters is not new; it goes back to the Spanish civil war and beyond. But the advent of social media opens up multiple new possibilities for direct communication to encourage ever more numbers of young people to respond to a so-called ‘call of duty’.

Social media can also be a tool for good; with concerted efforts and smart campaigns, we too can reach these young people and give them the knowledge to ask the right questions about whether travelling to Syria to fight is the right thing to do. For now, the violent extremists are winning the war of ideas online. It’s time for the counter-messengers to raise their game.

 

 

 

Here’s a piece I’ve got on HuffPo this morning, setting out 5 messages for Ed Miliband on foreign policy. It draws on a chapter I wrote for a new Fabian Society collection, One Nation in the World, that was launched on Monday in Parliament. The wonderful Kirsty McNeill has written a response to the collection.

5 Messages for Ed Miliband on Foreign Policy

When Prime Minister Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May 2015, he will inherit a foreign and security policy machine that needs fixing. The country can’t afford to support its ambitions for world leadership; new alliances are needed with the private sector; investment is needed in systems capacity – especially technological and linguistic – and the Labour Prime Minister will need to rebuild the trust of a public rocked by Snowden’s revelations about how the machinery of foreign and security policy really works.

Here are five messages for Prime Minister Miliband and his foreign policy team.

Labour needs a streamlined foreign policy

Austerity Britain can no longer afford to support its grand ambitions; the Foreign Office (FCO) budget is set to half as a proportion of departmental spending and the Ministry of Defence is facing cuts larger than any other department. Given these constraints, it makes sense to do less but better, focusing on a much smaller number of strategic priorities. The FCO should think in terms of campaigning rather than diplomacy, taking on a small number of touchstone foreign policy campaigning issues with a clear objective, measureable aims, a roadmap for success, smart communications strategy, and high-level leadership. The Foreign Secretary’s campaign to end sexual violence against women in conflict areas is a great example of this approach in practice, and will have ripple effects to broader work on gender, conflict and development.

Labour needs to rethink multilateralism

Let’s be honest; our international institutions do not work. And while reform efforts continue, a Labour government needs a new way of getting things done. It should look to convene small action-oriented networks of countries looking for solutions around specific problems. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, created in 2009, is an example of what these flexible can-do networks can achieve – the results have been staggering.

Labour should also prioritise investment in regional bodies to deliver local solutions because these efforts tend to be more effective, build resilience and are sustainable. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has turned a lost cause into a beacon of hope – this is the kind of thing we need in Mali instead of French boots on the ground. Three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders are now in Africa.

Labour needs to bring the private sector into foreign policy making

Discussions within foreign policy tend to read like a cartographical roll call of who’s hot and who’s not. But power is not just shifting from West to East; it is seeping away from government, meaning that foreign policy solutions are found in boardrooms rather than embassies. For example, while Cathy Ashton deserves credit for mediating a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, for years the EU failed to enforce its own sanctions. 18 months before this agreement was reached, a tiny NGO – United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) – successfully lobbied SWIFT to discontinue its services to EU-sanctioned Iranian financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank. What brought Iran to the table? Careful diplomacy or economic isolation achieved by a tiny but focused and determined advocacy group? Similarly, Google’s new uProxy product that allows ordinary citizens to allow campaigners under repressive regimes to use their internet connections as safe, anonymous proxy servers, could have a much larger impact on political reform in countries like Iran and China than careful, steady diplomacy.

Labour needs to put technology at the centre of its foreign policy making

Foreign policy can draw on a multitude of new technology tools to make it more effective – but it doesn’t. It could use large-scale sentiment analysis of social media big data to gauge the mood on the street. It could use social media platforms as a route to direct communication and engagement with foreign publics. And it could even crowd source policy making by enabling citizens to analyse data, as exemplified by the work of Brown Moses, who managed to join the dots quicker and more effectively on weapons in Syria than diplomats and analysts within government with access to highly classified information.

Labour needs to win back public trust in foreign policy

Perhaps the most important foreign policy ally for the next Labour government will be the British public. What Iraq started, Snowden finished, reinforcing the feeling that things aren’t working, that the ‘system’ has as much interest in self-preservation as public duty, and that elected politicians are not up to the job of reform. Labour should launch a public national enquiry into the impact of new technologies, the Internet and social media on foreign and security policy, addressing the full range of ethical challenges, governance issues, access to information, and opportunities for improving effectiveness and impact. It should be led by someone independent of the establishment who will not shy away from holding the foreign policy community to account.

The previous Labour government’s approach to foreign policy was the source of considerable public mistrust and dissatisfaction of the party. The scale of the challenge means that foreign policy is something that the next Labour government ignores at its peril.

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