PS21 Event Writeup: ‘The Changing Face of Conflict’ (October 2)

The fourth installment of our Changing Face of Conflict series was hosted in the Cabinet Office and moderated by PS21 Director and Reuters Global Affairs Columnist Peter Apps. From urban violence in the world’s metropoles, the role of women in Daesh, to the clashing of International Humanitarian Law with the use of drones, our panel challenged the audience to think outside of classic response categories.

Dr Kieran Mitton, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, reported insights from field studies in Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Freetown and London. With the growth of megacities, human society is now dominated by urbanisation. In the convergence of urban and civil war, Mitton argued, we should pay more attention to cities as conflict grounds instead of thinking primarily of state actors. Threats will be increasingly urban, yet he warned of a counterproductive focus on insecurity and the dangers of the militarisation of policing. Mitton argued that any sustainable intervention in urban warfare needs to address the social root causes and understand that urban conflict is not a short-term violent spike, but a long-lasting harmful process.

Dr Joana Cook, Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College London, discussed the role of women in Daesh and the responses we need to formulate when de-radicalising and reintegrating female returnees. The one-sided narratives of female victims in the former caliphate are essentially harmful for adequately countering extremism she said. Women have held diverse roles in Daesh: As combatants, fundraisers, propagandists and background supporters, they have contributed substantially and have provided inspiration to other female recruits. Any response to both returnees and women remaining within the organisation has to be a holistic, full-spectrum approach. For female returnees, community-level initiatives and judicial approaches need to take into account women who do not pose a threat and differentiate from those who do. Within Syria and Iraq, allied forces need to consider how women are engaged in long-term rebuilding efforts and can be transformed into valuable partners. Overall, Cook urged that we have to better at engaging, accounting for, and responding to women.

Dr Eleanor Beevor, Anthropologist, Journalist and Conflict, Security & Development Research Analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, spoke on the erosion of human rights and peace building institutions. Beevor argued that Western society has become far too comfortable with the idea that precision in warfare will provide solutions. In increasingly urban warfare, the use of drones cannot be precise enough to not harm civilians. As such, 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria alone were caused by coalition drone strikes. Beevor criticised the wide-spread persuasion that the only way to respond to non-state extremists is to exterminate them; according to her analyses, non-apocalyptic groups can certainly be engaged. Finally, Beevor urged the audience to not neglect civilians in conflict, to do everything one can to strengthen the institutions of International Humanitarian Law and the mechanisms that exist to minimise civilian deaths.

Photo credit: Maja Schower

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