Written evidence from the University of Edinburgh Political Settlements Research Team (TFP0030)

The Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP, www.politicalsettlements.org), supported by funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, was based at the Law School of the University of Edinburgh, from 2015-2021.  It brought together consortium of research and practice-based organisations. The PSRP conducted research on how to design inclusive peace processes capable of ending violent conflict and sustaining peace.

Of particular relevance to this submission the team has produced an innovative new form of ‘peace analytics’, by which we mean data analytics relating to complex peacebuilding processes. This includes:

  1. The innovative ‘PA-X’ database on global peace processes from 1990 to date. www.peaceagreements.org
  2. A related database on data on gender and peace processes. https://www.peaceagreements.org/wsearch
  3. A dedicated database on local peace agreements, about which little was previously known. https://www.peaceagreements.org/lsearch
  4. A database on amnesties in conflict and peace processes. https://www.peaceagreements.org/amnesties/
  5. A PeaceFem App which supports women mediators particular in the Middle East and North Africa (it is one of the few resources available in Arabic as well as English). Available google play and iplayer.
  6. Creative visualisation of the data.  See eg.  https://www.peaceagreements.org/visualizing-peace?visualisation=messy
  7. A ‘Covid 19 Ceasefires Tracker’, which tracks ceasefires called during the pandemic, some in response to the UN Secretary General’s call. https://pax.peaceagreements.org/static/covid19ceasefires/
  8. Involvement in a collaborative attempt with the UN and other partners, to design a digital process for Yemen, to support a more inclusive peace process.

The above data is fully linked with data on deaths in conflict, and supports new understandings of how conflict unfolds, and how it is brought to conclusion in ways that support future peace process design and implementation. In particular, our work focuses on how to strategically navigate the tension between the elite pacts necessary to end fighting, and the wider social understandings and commitments necessary to peace. 

University of Edinburgh PSRP research is regularly drawn on by FCDO, the UN, and governments and non-state actors in conflict contexts, to give in-time advice on peace process and constitutional design. This has led us to work closely with in-country teams in some of the world’s most protracted conflict settings, over some period of time. This experience, and PSRP’s in-country local partnerships, gives it good insight into conflict and conflict resolution dynamics in practice, the use of research and digital innovation to inform good practice, and also into how the UK programmes, diplomacy, and military interventions operate in conflict-affected states and could be supported by digital developments

 

The submission is focused on answering the questions with particular reference to the UK’s prioritisation in the Integrated Review of conflict resolution. Centrally we set out how a UK commitment to PeaceTechcould form a centre-piece of FCDO diplomacy and development support in conflict-affected countries, and at the same time bring together digital innovation with conflict resolution goals in the integrated review, in ways that would have much broader FCDO and inter-departmental dividends.

We use the term PeaceTech to mean broadly: the use of digital technologies in support of conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

We have aligned our response to the questions asked, from this perspective.

  1. What technologies are shifting power? What is the FCDO’s understanding of new technologies and their effect on the UK’s influence? 

The following key technologies are shifting power in the following ways:

Technology

Powershift

5G technologies

 

Arguably towards those with best technological capacity (eg China)

As a technology of disaggregated networks it also shifts power towards local networks, and private networks, potentially realigning public-private relationships. 

Cloud computing

Shifts power to private providers with data storage capacity, but also increases ‘servitization’ of computing provision concentrating it in the hands of big providers.

Can widen access to computer power and storage.

Internet of things

Will shift power commercially to those who can connect customers and products in new ways, and to those who have the widest most powerful data (eg google and amazon)

Can shift military power, for example drone war fare and robotics

Will lead to new public-private alliances in terms of how ‘things’ are connected to each other at the ‘edge’.

It also has ‘peacetech’ capacity which can shift power between military warfare and civilians, see for example Hala Systems triangulating plane flight paths, with crowd sourced data, with sensors in the ground, to determine bombing patterns in Syria, or attempts to monitor weapons movements using sensors as part of ceasefire arrangements. 

Digital analytics, which are as yet not well developed with relation to conflict and peace, but where data exists that could be better integrated.  

 

PeaceTech capacity.  An as yet under developed ‘peace analytics’ capacity in our view exists, that would understand the connections (and limitations) between different data on conflict and its outcomes, and key issues in peace process design and implementation.  This could shift attention from the arena of ‘reaching a comprehensive peace agreement’ towards much clearer and better informed support to implementing peace agreement commitments

Our work has also demonstrated the considerable opportunity to use improved peace analytics to shift power back to local pro-peace communities, by giving them ways to participate in and monitor, and re-shape peace agreement implementation.  Given the important of ‘inclusion’ to conflict resolution (see UN/ World Bank Pathways to Peace Report), and the increasing reluctance of external states to remain involved in post-agreement setting in a long-term way, this type of digital innovation is critical to sustaining peace.

Large data has and can be used to monitor actors in conflict (see use of Palantir Foundry), raising also new complex ethical considerations.  Use of private data capacity in relation to warfare can shift power from regulated spaces of political decision-making, to less transparent spaces of digital information gathering in systems that are not transparent

Block chain

Block chain has capacity to shift power in global financial markets through for example crypto currencies.

In the conflict resolution field, it has capacity to address issues that go the heart of sustaining peace post an agreement being reached, eg: addressing and preventing corruption; ensuring humanitarian reconstruction and other forms of development assistance can be delivered in contexts in which conflict is seldom ended completely across the whole territory immediately.

Blockchain also has capacity to solve issues related to trust, which could lead to trouble-shooting difficult post-conflict issues.  For example, blockchain to trace supply chains and origins of goods, could play a significant role in avoiding the Northern Ireland Protocol problems which threaten peace at present (addressed further below). However, trade deals are often used to attempt to solidify networks of peace (Europe post second world war, Israel-Jordan agreement following Oslo Accords), and so Blockchain has a wider role to play.

Low connectivity innovation.

However, we also think that innovations such as internet provision solar hubs, raspberry Pi computing facilities, and improved access to mobile phones, all create new opportunities for peacebuilding innovation that can shift power to local peacebuilders to address conflict at early stages.  The focus on ‘new technologies’ should not detract from the significance of new ways of giving remote and poor communities access to simple low band width and cheap technologies, all of which can be used in creative ways to facilitate ‘every day’ peace.  These continue to shift power, and also provide capacities such as ‘banking’ to very poor communities.

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  1. How can the FCDO engage with private technology companies to influence and promote the responsible development and use of data and new technologies?

We focus our response to our field of interest and expertise, in terms of capacity to influence use of private technology companies with reference to conflict avoidance, de-escalation and resolution.

We think there is a real opportunity for FCDO to create a new ‘PeaceTech’ capacity which focuses on using technology for mediation and conflict management and resolutionIn particular three main ways in which PeaceTech capacity works. 

-          ‘peace analytics’ are data analytics which focus on how processes of social change take place, capable of improving strategic thinking as to how to support peace processesSee www.peaceagreements.org

-          PeaceTech applications can be used to reduce conflict, for example, apps to warn of kidnapping groups for children (being used as part of community early warning responses in Kenya); or the Hala Systems example in Syria above; or attempts to monitor and remove hate speech on social media.

-          Digital innovation can be used as PeaceTech to monitor agreement implementation in creative ways.

In our view good design for PeaceTech involves ongoing commitment to partnership across research, peacebuilding, and technology fields.  In our experience simply buying the technology capacity from a company does not work well, as the digital transformation is only possible through iterative design which also involves connection with end users of the product (local or international peacebuilders).  The company can work to a ‘spec’, but the spec may only be reachable through a collaborative design process.  Company trends towards ‘servitization’ of their technology, can also lead to ongoing high costs for public use of any co-designed product, and loss of control over the capacity to benefit from what has been a collective research effort. 

Government should therefore consider how to incentivise R&D PeaceTech collaborations across Universities, companies and peacebuilding organisations, which would lead to a public use product. There are perhaps some examples in the types of collaboration that arise in the medical area.

In our experience cross organisational product-design collaboration also builds in forms of ‘responsible development’ as the type of ethical and data protection standards which researchers have to supply, demand particular security protocols and procedures, which then become built-in to the company provision.  For example, the University of Edinburgh team brought together an Indian-based app development team, UN-based digital designers, researchers from three different data projects (one at University of Edinburgh, one at Monash University and one at University of Geneva), and peacebuilding organisations, to produce the PeaceFem app. 

  1. How can the FCDO engage with private companies to encourage internationally accepted norms for the use of social media as well as to maximise the benefits for diplomacy presented by social media?

In addition to the issues generally with social media, we would point to some considerable additional problems in the arena of conflict and peace processes.

Hate speech and misinformation is a tool of stoking up division and capacity for violence in deeply divided societies, and is almost uniquely now subject to external influence.  It is also often an ‘early warning’ as to conflict escalating.  The rate of disinformation also makes some of the space needed for early stage peace processes almost impossible. Accountability of social media companies has paid little attention to the role in conflict settings. Interesting NGO and UN attempts to work in local dialects in places like Yemen, to identify what the vocabulary of hate speech is, could be better connected to a clear commitment to much clearer ‘conflict sensitive’ approaches to self and governmental regulation of social media companies. 

In terms of the wider accountability of social media companies we note with interest the work of the Center for Business and Human Rights, Stern Business School, NYU (https://bhr.stern.nyu.edu/tech) and have worked closely with Mike Posner Director of the Center in other contexts.  This work is pathbreaking and has been produced in close dialogue with social media companies.  The key recommendations across the work are summarised in a series of recommendations to the Biden administration which would be well worth the Committee considering.  They can be found here:  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b6df958f8370af3217d4178/t/6058a456ca24454a73370dc8/1616421974691/TechnologyRecommendations_2021final.pdf

  1. How can the FCDO use its alliances to shape the development of, and promote compliance with, international rules and regulations relating to new and emerging technologies? Is the UK taking sufficient advantage of the G7 Presidency to achieve this? 

It is unclear at the ‘grand level’ what the UK’s strategy and ideas for the development of international rules and regulations is: in which foreign diplomacy field does it seek to strengthen international rules and regulsations, why and how?  Similarly, while the Integrated Review and other elements of government policy seem to be strongly committed to digital innovation and establishing the UK at the forefront of digital transformation in areas as broad as space research, internet of things, and blockchain, it is harder to understand how this broad vision relates to specific policies that are to implement these broad commitments. Moreover it is difficult to find any account of how the Integrated Review commitments to technology, sit with a wider UK cross departmental tech vision. 

We suggest that in the conflict resolution field, it would be possible to take this as a priority in the Integrated Review and work through what a digital strategy would look like in terms of (a) conflict prevention (or sustaining peace) (b) conflict management and (c) Conflict resolution.  We would be happy to provide more information on our ideas for this but set out some key ideas in response to the Inquiry questions.

We are unable to talk about the role of the UK in the G7 Presidency, except to note that mixed messages about whether the UK is following a strategy based on ‘national sovereignty’ as somehow diminished by international cooperation on one hand, or a strategy of understanding promotion of international cooperation as an important manifestation of the UK as a global power on the other, mean that the UK is diminishing its global influence in the international regulatory spaceMessaging in one sphere of operation influences other spheres.  In recent times the UK has undermined its historic positon of full compliance with international law which was central to its strategy of being a key promoter of international norms.  The UK cannot credibly promote norm compliance in one sphere if it rejects its own compliance in another.  It is also likely to be seen as an unreliable partner in any project which seeks to promote the ‘common good’, the more it asserts arguments based on national exceptionalism.

  1. Should the Government’s approach to meeting the challenges of technology nationalism and digital fragmentation be based on self-sufficiency, joining with allies or like-minded nations or supporting a coherent global framework?

We would suggest that in the PeaceTech field it should involve an element of all of these approaches and not view them as choices.  There should be an attempt to build up a distinct UK capacity based on the experience of projects such as ours, which would continue to build on the UK’s strong recent history in the development field.  However, the UK should at the same time join with allies and like-minded nations where collaboration is desirable and easily possible – for example Finland and Switzerland have governments which are actively supporting PeaceTech, while the United States Institute of Peace, which receives considerable government funding, has established PeaceTech Lab.  In our view these collaborations should also pro-actively address what good ethics standards and regulations would look like and establish best practice, thereby creating the normative framework in which future PeaceTech innovation was developed.

  1. What opportunities and challenges do cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain present for the way the FCDO does diplomacy (for example, enforcing sanctions), and how can the FCDO harness these technologies as new tools of influence or to promote compliance and transparency in international agreements?

It would be possible to address issues of sanctions, issues of corruption, and issues of lack of trust through block chain.  The main issues are ‘who owns the block chain’, when set up it creates a system whose claim is to be ‘trustworthy’, but this requires ‘prior trust in the underlying technology and algorithms, and issues as to how goods are marked and traced which are difficult to verify. 

We would suggest that there could be value in working in a strongly collaborative way with business actors in Northern Ireland, the EU, and third country suppliers, to address the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol using blockchain.  Walmart for example has been able to produce product tracability.  This itself could  be both proof-of-concept, solve the current issues, and create a new form of trade collaboration between UK-EU- and third country suppliers.  In theory blockchain together with ‘internet of things’ - for example sensors could be used to track parts, and even their multiple components and percentages of origin, to fit with the complex regulatory regime Brexit has developed, in particular as regards Northern Ireland. 

Arguably it is a good starting point because some sort of closed ledger could be established in which all the relevant parties were partners, therefore providing the requisite trust.  There are already significant developments of 5G network in Belfast Port, which would provide a starting point for monitoring. 

This development could theoretically also open up a completely new disruptive international trade innovation in which there was not a binary choice say between ‘EU membership’ and not, in that potentially companies or even regions that wanted to prioritise trade with Europe over say India, because that was better for their market, could sign up themselves to compliance with EU frameworks and provide compliance by locking into the same ledger.  In a sense this would remove the idea of set of a single national choices over how trading relationships should be calibrated through trade deals, by enabling voluntary regulatory compliance with a series of bilateral trade deals even down to the company level which could be fully monitored and traced by whichever country the company was supplying to.

  1. How can the FCDO help build resilience in civil society, in Government, business and foreign relations against the threats posed by abuses of new technologies by state and non-state actors? Can the FCDO support trust-building networks?

We suggest that the answers above would play a role in this enterprise.

  1. What would the implications be of the dollar losing its dominant position for international transactions? Will digital currencies force a change in the balance of power?

Digital currencies seem very likely to force a change in the balance of power (see Chinese development of digital currency), but we do not address further as beyond our immediate remit.  We would, however, point out that beyond the issue of ‘banking control’ digital currencies have considerable positive potential for to provide forms of localised banking and money transfers in a secure and trusted way, in ways that could underpin peace processes in countries that lack coherent banking systems but where forms of cash payment need to underpin, for example, Demobilisation, demilitarisation and reintegration programmes aimed at former fighters. 

 

Christine Bell, Director of the Political Settlements Research Programme, University of Edinburgh

 

 

 

 

1 June 2021