Archive for June, 2014

Keeping Talking: Lessons to be Learnt from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

From 10 to 13 June, government representatives from more than 123 countries and over 1,000 experts, faith leaders, lawyers, Nobel laureates, activists, survivors and youth groups gathered together in London for a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Chaired by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, the summit considered key areas for change including accountability, support for survivors and reform of security and justice. But, perhaps more important than all the talk of political leaders, was the encouragement of public engagement with the summit. The Global Summit Fringe included public seminars, theatre, film showings, a market-place, photography exhibitions and representation from many charities and NGOs. Topped off with a vocal social media campaign, the summit and its fringe were designed to once and for all break the silence that has, for too long, surrounded the issue of sexual violence in conflict.


Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie address the media at ExCel London ahead of the opening of the Summit Fringe on Tuesday 10 June. Photo courtesy of FCO.


Unfortunately, rarely do perpetrators of sexual violence during war-time face consequences to their actions. Knowing it is unlikely that anything will be done to bring their abuser to justice is one reason why too few victims report what has happened to them. This in turn leads to a lack of proper data on sexual crime, which further hampers resolution of the problem. Thus, one immediate and effective way to end such violence is to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of these acts. To this end, the summit saw the launch of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which ‘sets out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence, whilst protecting witnesses, in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators’. In future, countries will be held to account for their prosecution of those who believe that war is an excuse for committing appalling acts of sexual violence against women, children and men.

Support of Survivors

During the summit it was agreed that further funding was needed to support UN and NGO efforts to provide assistance to those who have survived sexual violence during conflict. Importantly, it was also recognised that ‘preventing and responding to sexual violence must be prioritized from the start of any humanitarian response and most importantly, recognised as life-saving activity, not an afterthought’. Such help needs to be delivered swiftly and include holistic and integrated services, from full sexual reproductive health rights to psycho-social support, livelihoods support and shelter. Key to such work in helping survivors is also the provision of access to justice, including reparations. Indeed, reparation is often cited by victims of sexual violence as key to their recovery, and not just in financial terms. Often, reparation is about ‘the restoration of dignity, status and health’, but at the moment it is an underused means of justice.

It's time to break the silence.

It’s time to break the silence. Photo author’s own.

Security and Justice Reform

Security and peacekeeping forces are often the first responders to sexual violence. They have access to information about events that is otherwise unavailable to civilians and they may be the only protection that vulnerable sections of society have against sexual violence. They may also be perpetrators. Yet security forces are often not properly equipped to deal with this sensitive and difficult problem. To this end, the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has made ‘the commitment to ensure national military and police doctrine and training [is] aligned with international law’. Efforts are also to be made for the promotion of gender equality within the justice and security sector as a means of helping to tackle sexual violence. The participation of women (who often have more access and legitimacy than official negotiators) in peace processes also needs to become the norm.

Not Just Politicians

Resolutions, laws, pledges and international agreements are all well and good but unless attitudes change this will not be enough to end sexual violence in conflict. It was, therefore, recognised by the summit that faith groups have a key role to play. They often have access and influence with local communities and thus are ‘uniquely placed to change hearts and minds, and challenge cultural and social norms, including notions of masculine identity as it affects sexual violence’. Faith-based organisations also play a part in providing care, treatment and support for survivors, and so should be engaged as active partners in the fight against sexual violence. Likewise, local community activists are often best placed to make a difference on the ground, including in changing attitudes and behaviours that underpin inequality and the spread of violence.

The Sound of Silence

For too long sexual violence in conflict has been a taboo subject, or seen as an inevitable part of war. And it is this silence over the issue which has been one of the greatest barriers to ending it. Silence from the victims who are often afraid to speak out about what has happened to them for fear of further persecution or blame; silence from the survivors and their families because of the shame that it is felt when female ‘purity’ has been compromised; silence because what is the point, when so often the perpetrators face no consequence for their actions; silence from forces of security and justice who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem; and silence from governments who prefer to ignore the horrific nature of a problem than admit its existence. The greatest triumph of the Global Summit is, therefore, quite simply the breaking of the silence. Politicians, military leaders, faith leaders, NGOs, charities, survivors, activists and ordinary people from all backgrounds came together for a few days to talk. To talk and to share and to listen. But the summit is just the beginning – we must keep the conversation going.



1 Comment

The Past, Present and Future of Intelligence Work

A few weeks ago I attended an event organised by the brilliant Mile End Group to mark the 50th anniversary of the Defence Intelligence Staff. With many long-serving members of the intelligence community in the audience, discussion inevitably turned to the changing nature of intelligence work – from the post-Second World War focus on Communism to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future challenges of cyber-terrorism. Below I take a look at some of the different aspects of working in intelligence in the past, the present and the future.

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

A satellite communications dish outside the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: GCHQ/Crown Copyright/MOD


Intelligence work by its nature is constantly evolving and so, therefore, is the remit of the various organisations involved in monitoring, analysing and combating threats to the UK’s security. Some services have changed more than others – GCHQ started life deciphering the telegrams of persons on interest and although the technology has changed SIGNIT is still very much its territory. On the other hand, Defence Intelligence, founded to provide data collection and analysis at the highest, strategic, level has found itself increasingly involved in operational work; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw Defence Intelligence staff deployed more frequently than ever before (other times included to the former Yugoslavia and during the Sierra Leone civil war). More recently, there has been a proposal to move UK counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) – an organisation whose focus has thus far largely been on drugs, people trafficking and child exploitation. The UK’s intelligence organisations therefore need to be flexible and adaptable to change with modern times, while also capitalising on their decades’ worth of institutional experience.


It used to be Communism and the Soviet Union, now it’s Islamic extremism and the Middle East/Asia: as threats to the UK shift from one ideology/country/region to another, so too does the focus of intelligence work and so too does the need for specialised knowledge. Russia is a perfect example of the difficulties facing the intelligence services when it comes to the issue of knowledge: during the Cold War there were Russian experts aplenty but with the fall of the Soviet Union attention turned elsewhere, and the agencies were hunting out those who spoke Arabic/Farsi/Pushtu. Now, with Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, it appears that some intelligence experts are worried about the lack of current information on Russia.

The problem of course is how to predict where the next flash points are going to be. Which leads to a catch 22 – you don’t necessarily know that Russia is still a potential threat to the UK if you are not putting the resources into monitoring that country; but you won’t put your resources there if you don’t think there is a reason to. One way to address this is to go for a strategy of broad thinking, trying to make sure you have a little knowledge on a lot rather than vice versa – jack of all trades and master of none. At the moment this appears to be the general trend, certainly in Defence Intelligence anyway. The problem is there will always be a need for more in-depth, specialised knowledge of a particular ideology/country/region. This perennial balancing act between broad versus deep knowledge will not doubt always be an issue for intelligence work. However, future technological advances that enhance our ability to amass and analyse vast amounts of data will no doubt help.


Indeed, the undisputed greatest change that has overcome intelligence work since the latter half of the twentieth century is the massive advances in technology and the sheer magnitude of the data that we are now able to collect on people. The modern intelligence worker is therefore going to have to be au fait with technology in way that goes beyond having good IT skills. These changes pose their own challenges, however. The ability to collect huge reams of information is all well and good, but data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it – and the more data you have, potentially the more man-power it takes to analyse this, the more chance you have of missing something vital. There is also the danger of worshipping too much at the altar of technology and losing focus on what some might call the fundamentals of intelligence work – HUMINT. One argument for the Met retaining jurisdiction over counter-terrorism, for example, is that the police are imbedded in the local communities, allowing them to gather information, track suspects and uncover plots in a way the NCA could not. The Afghan conflict provides a clear demonstration of the need for both the machine and the man: drones may have come into their own when used for reconnaissance of the difficult Afghan terrain, but counterinsurgency relies on HUMINT – men and women on the ground making human contact with those they are trying to influence or gather information from.


Everybody knows the old ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ routine of intelligence recruitment: young men of a certain class and educational background, usually with the right family connections, would be individually recruited to work in the intelligence services. How much of the intelligence workforce was recruited this way is arguable, but the general point rings true: given that before 1994 nobody could officially acknowledge the existence of the UK intelligence agencies, recruitment was done more surreptitiously (perhaps adding to the allure of intelligence work for some).

Today it is not uncommon to see one or more of the intelligence services with a stand at a careers fair. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all now advertise their vacancies on their own websites while the NCA and MoD feature on the Civil Service Job Site. In the age of the ‘competency question’ and psychometric tests, recruitment into intelligence work has also become much more standardised, and arguably more democratic: any British national with the right aptitude should (in theory) be able to work as an analyst for MI5.

However, there has been some push-back against current recruitment trends by those who argue that the application process is killing off individuality among applicants. It has been said that many of the UK’s greatest intelligence workers would not be able to pass today’s rigid application questions, difficult psychometric tests and assessment centres. In future then, we might see more of the personal touch brought into recruitment practices, and perhaps an evolution in psychometric tests to make them more nuanced in their assessment of personality. Just as recruitment practices have changed, so too has the training of intelligence workers undergone rapid development since the second half of the twentieth century. The professionalisation of staff, is in fact one of the key changes noted by many at the Defence Intelligence event.

Paul Dukes

Would men such as the infamous Paul Dukes have been able to pass modern day intelligence recruitment processes?

For me it is always this great juxtaposition between the continuity and the change in intelligence work which makes it so fascinating a topic. On the one hand, Britain has a fantastically rich heritage of intelligence work: it was one of the first countries in the world to set up specific schemes to keep informed on the doings of foreign powers, with Walsingham’s network of spies, cryptographers and forgers in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, technology and globalisation are advancing so rapidly that the practice of monitoring and analysing threats to the UK’s security is in many ways unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago. It is how organisations handle these changes while not losing connection to their institutional pasts that ensures the effectiveness of modern-day intelligence work.

, , , , ,

1 Comment

Violence against women and girls since the Arab Spring

The Global Summit took place at ExCel London.

The Global Summit took place at ExCel London.

Last Tuesday evening I attended a public talk hosted by Chatham House at the Global Summit on Sexual Violence which has been taking place this week in London. This particular talk was focused on the increase in violence against women in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Syria since the Arab Spring. With a panel of four inspiring women and their chair the event was one of the highlights of the summit. The speakers included:

Ghaidaa al Absi, a Yemen activist and anti-harassment campaigner

Dr Fida Shafi, a senior fellow at Chatham House who has recently conducted research among female Syrian refugees.

Dr Nervana Mahmoud, Egyptian journalist and commentator

Dr Nicola Pratt, Reader of International Politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick

An emotive and compelling discussion, some of the key points made during the event included:

  • Violence against women and children has increased significantly with the events of the Arab Spring for a variety of reasons.
  • The problem is chronic and endemic. It takes many forms, from harassment to sexual assault and rape. Pratt emphasised the need to differentiate between the various forms that such violence is taking in order to better understand the problem, but broadly the issue affects women from all backgrounds and is perpetrated by men of all backgrounds too. Thus, the solution to the problem needs to be multi-faceted.
  • Egypt is currently the worst country in the Arab region for violence against women, with 8 out of every 10 women being harassed every day in the country. Mahmoud pointed out there is a real risk of Egypt thus developing the terrible reputation as ‘a country of rapists’.
  • Women tend to be blamed for the acts of violence that are perpetrated against them, with accusations about dress and condemnation of their participation in political protest, while men are often excused for their actions.
  • Violence against women thrives on silence. There is a huge issue of stigma and shame which is preventing the reporting of and, therefore, in turn the resolution of the problem. It is difficult to have accurate figures on violence against women since so many are too ashamed to talk about what has happened to them.
  • Such shame is intrinsically linked to the pervading culture regarding the purity of women, and the sacredness of virginity.
Speakers at the Chatham House discussion

Speakers at the Chatham House discussion

  • Violence against women can be used as a way to emasculate male opponents in times of war or political conflict. Because in such cultures men are supposed to be protectors of their women folk, violence against a man’s wife, sister, daughter etc is often used to inflict harm against the man. In this way, women are deemed, effectively, as little more than tools of war.
  • The shame of men in regards to violence that has been inflicted on their women helps perpetuate the silence on the issue, since neither men nor women want to speak out about what has happened to them or their family.
  • This state of denial and a tendency to blame the victim are the greatest barriers to tackling violence against women.
  • As Shafi explained, fear of rape is so great that it can cause women to flee their home countries rather than run the risk of being subjected to such violence.
  • In Egypt feminism has traditionally been centred on the First Lady and the cities, and is often seen as a Western idea. Therefore women in rural areas eschew feminist ideas.
  • The new anti-harassment law in Egypt is a good law, but it will not address the problem if the perpetrators are not properly found and tried. There is also the issue of the police harassing women. Until women in Egypt feel protected by police and confident in the legal system, the law will be ineffective.

Such are the snippets of information from the talk which demonstrate just how complex the issue of violence against women is. Change is happening, as younger men and women start to struggle against regressive thinking. However, cultural norms, views on female rights, and the stigma attached to matters of a sexual nature are deeply rooted in the Arab region. It will take a lot to tackle such entrenched problems, but events such as the Global Summit are a great step in the right direction.


, , ,

Leave a comment

Sexual Violence in Conflict

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Get involved in free public events this week at the global summit

This week sees the largest gathering ever to end sexual violence in conflict take place in London. From 10th to 13th June the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, will be co-chairing a global summit at the ExCel Centre.

The summit will include 3 days of free public events, from cinema screenings to theatre productions, seminars, debates and a market place. Highlights include talks from Chatham House, Oxfam and Unicef, a silent cinema show-casing award winner films on sexual violence and the play Liberian Girl presented by the Royal Court Theatre.

The aim of the summit is to create ‘irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground’. As William Hague has said, this is a summit like no other in the world, largely because public involvement is one of its key aims.

So if you’re in London this week, get down to ExCel, show your support via social media (#timetoact) and lets make sure real progress is made to end sexual violence in conflict.

, ,

1 Comment

Ready or Not? The NCA and Counter-Terrorism

A sneak preview of a post soon to be published on the Future Foreign Policy website…

Ever since its inception in 2011 there has been debate about the efficacy of the National Crime Agency (NCA) taking over counter-terrorism operations from the Met police. Now, the Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended that the transfer of these duties begin immediately with a view to the NCA assuming full counter-terrorism responsibility by 2018. The main argument for such a move appears to be a worry about the ability of the Met police to cope with its current responsibilities – the report comes after a series of high-profile scandals including the shooting of Mark Duggan and the escape of terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed. Indeed the Committee noted explicitly that the action to shift counter-terrorism duties should be taken ‘in order to allow the Met to focus on the basics of policing London’. However, for all this talk of Met failures, nobody appears to be focusing on the NCA and asking whether it is, in fact, capable of coping any better than the police when it comes to foiling terrorist plots against the UK.

The British FBI

The NCA was created in October 2013 and currently includes four main pillars: Border Policing, Economic Crime, Organised Crime and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). NCA officers are ‘triple warranted’ – holding the powers and privileges of a constable, a customs officer, and an immigration officer. Although much of this work was already being done by its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the crucial difference is that the NCA’s director-general, Keith Bristow, is able to insist that chief constables do as he asks. Such power over local policing has led to the NCA being dubbed ‘the British FBI’ (a name no doubt encouraged by images of officers in black bomber jackets with ‘NCA’ emblazoned on the back). However, although it has only been in existence for 8 months there have already been questions asked of the agency – not least over the issue of secrecy. Despite Bristow’s apparent desire for the public to understand about the work of his organisation, there have been accusations that it operated as a ‘secret police’ when it refused to confirm it had arrested Patrick Rock, one of David Cameron’s advisers. Such action appears in stark contrast to the growing emphasis in the UK on the need for transparency and public oversight of our intelligence agencies.


Keith Bristow, Director of the NCA, holds great power over police chiefs. Photo courtesy of Chatham House via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2011 the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) appeared sceptical of the motives behind transferring counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met, arguing that:

there seems to be very little in terms of strategic thinking behind the Committee’s recommendation of stripping the Met of its national primacy for terrorism investigations. Indeed, such a conclusion springs from a critical judgement of the Met’s performance in the phone-hacking scandal, rather than from an objective assessment of its CT [counter-terrorism] track record so far.

RUSI also addressed the issue of the NCA being a national organisation versus the locality of the Met. Although the London-based Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) retains a central coordinating and support function, it works closely with regional counter-terrorism hubs – a ‘flexible’ structure, ‘developed as a network rather than as a rigid hierarchical infrastructure’. Thus, although there may be room for improvement, the Met has ‘proven structures and processes’ already in place for combating terrorist activity. Furthermore, while the police and MI5 work well together on counter-terrorism (one retaining the lead for intelligence gathering and analysis, and the other for arrests and prosecutions), there is a fear that these proposals to expand the NCA’s remit might create friction between the two agencies.

An important issue that is not made clear in the Committee report is whether the NCA is to receive further resources to perform this new role of countering terrorist activity. The agency’s creation in 2013 was already in part a money-saving act; the organisations that were subsumed by the NCA had a combined budget of £812m, while the NCA only has £473.9m. The agency currently employs around 4,000 staff; compare this to the Met’s approximate 45,000 officers, police staff and PCSOs and serious questions arise as to the NCA’s physical ability to take on the mammoth task of counter-terrorism.

Losing Focus

One of the biggest fears about transferring counter-terrorism responsibility to the NCA is that it will cause it to lose focus on that which is was actually set up to do – namely fight serious organised crime. As this article points out, when it comes to organised crime a certain amount is tolerated simply because it is almost impossible to stamp out altogether. Public contact with, and understanding of, organised crime is generally limited. Terrorism, however, is a zero sum game. When the consequences of a counter-terrorism failure could be potentially catastrophic, it is inevitable that this will take precedence over drug trafficking, for example. In a situation where the NCA has a limited budget and resources, this could result in a significant decrease in the tackling of serious crime. In 2012 the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed its concern over what impact it would have on the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) and CEOP should the NCA be given counter-terrorism responsibilities, questioning the UK’s future ability to fulfil its European obligations in this regard.

Indeed, the fact that the NCA hasn’t been in existence for very long makes it hard to judge how the organisation would cope when it comes to balancing its current duties with new responsibilities. The agency has had some press-worthy success of late, including football match fixing and large drug seizures, but it is still too early to scrutinise how it is doing when it comes to its other, less high-profile, areas of activity. Since the justification for removing counter-terrorism from the Met is because it is affecting their ability to focus on their other tasks, surely it needs to be recognised that the NCA could fall foul of the same problem. Moreover, the fact that the agency is still relatively new raises the question of how it is settling into its already enhanced role, what turbulence its staff must have faced in the adjustments to their work, and whether it is right to therefore hoist further responsibility onto its shoulders at this time.

Altogether the report by the Home Affairs Select Committee has in fact raised more questions than it has answered. The Committee’s focus is on how the Met is failing when surely the more important question is whether the NCA is able to succeed. To place the protection of the UK from terrorist attack in the hands of an agency that is not wholly up to the job (be that due to staffing, resources or anything else) would be akin to criminal negligence on the part of MPs. Rather than being so quick to condemn the Met then, it would behove the government to think more carefully about whether the NCA could do any better.

, , ,

Leave a comment