There is a deadly paradox at the heart of international policymaking: external interventions carried out in the name of security often end up undermining peace and security. The United States, European countries, the United Nations, and others are backing military, technical, financial, and diplomatic “security” initiatives all over the world, but their efforts often end up worsening and perpetuating the conflicts they are supposed to stop or prevent. All the while, the people worst affected have very little say about what’s going on around them. Of course, these two problems are closely connected. In response, many peace and rights activists around the world are considering how to change the dynamic and ensure people affected by conflict are listened to in the debates that shape international security interventions.

Security Failure in an Age of Impunity

International Rescue Committee Chief Executive David Miliband has dubbed this moment in history the “age of impunity.” This month, the Italian government arrested a ship’s captain. The crime? Rescuing drowning migrants, whom Libyan coast guards backed by the European Union are supposed to drag back to detention camps rife with sexual torture and severe abuse. In U.S. migrant detention facilities, children are subject to “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”

In the name of peace and stability, the U.N. and its member states provide intelligence, logistics, and financial support to the armies of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad for counter-terror operations that consistently involve serious human rights violations that feed into further conflict. Despite its significant U.N. and EU backing, the African Union Mission in Somalia remains similarly heavy-handed.

As wars on terror and irregular migration have intensified, so have armed rebellions and forced displacement. As a bipartisan task force of prominent former U.S. policymakers recently observed:

Worldwide, annual terrorist attacks have increased fivefold since 2001. The number of self-professed Salafi-jihadist fighters has more than tripled … at an estimated cost of $5.9 trillion to U.S. taxpayers.

The post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq are also thought to have directly killed at least 480,000 people, and the world is now dealing with record levels of forced displacement.

In sum, security interventions are consistently failing at great cost. Yet governments tend to respond not by changing course and refocusing on addressing root causes, but with further investments in walls, border guards, special forces, train-and-equip programs, and remote warfare that all serve to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Shutting Out Civil Society

One reason why hard security responses still dominate despite their poor track record is that even governments who pride themselves on “listening” to civil society and promoting peace and freedom are actually remarkably closed to alternative ways of thinking about security and foreign policy.

Yes, there are discussions on considering human rights while combating terrorism, or on making the EU’s worryingly militarized new “peace” facility more sensitive to conflict, or even on giving countering/preventing violent extremism (C/PVE) approaches more of a peacebuilding/development spin. But the big decisions – such as throwing U.N. support behind counter-terror wars in Mali and Somalia, prioritizing counter-terrorism and migration control above more holistic peace and stability strategies, tightening counter-terror laws, or arming, funding, and legitimizing military commanders like Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar – these decisions mostly seem to be made with zero or negligible input from communities and civil society.

For organizations that want to research and challenge international security strategies, there are few funds available. Recent failures such as those catalogued above should mean greater appetite for critical perspectives in foreign and security policy debates, but few governments and foundations fund those who offer fresh perspectives and critical feedback. Most seem content with international and local civil society organizations echoing their buzzwords and priorities, or offering technical ideas on “best practices.” Civil society organizations that want to be included in higher-level discussions often feel they are supposed to leave critical perspectives on things like C/PVE at home.

This kind of echo chamber does not lend itself to improved security interventions, but to groupthink where the same flawed approaches persist despite their clear faults.

The muting of critical voices in international policy debates is not unrelated to the situation in repressive and unstable contexts, where civil society is fighting for its life. Over half of U.N. member states now actively curtail people’s freedoms. The laws and rhetoric used to counter terrorism and “violent extremism” are increasingly being used to crush opposition.

As limited funding opportunities push them toward supporting donor governments’ perspectives, many civil society organizations, including youth and women’s groups, face pressure to buy into C/PVE – and embrace that flawed “soft side” of the war on terror – rather than abandon efforts to promote security entirely. These funding pressures serve to mute civil society criticism of prevailing security policies at a time when opposition to repression is being ever more rapidly dismantled in the name of counter-terrorism, under the watching eyes of Europe and the United States.

The bottom line: international security policy follows the same old patterns, and repeats the same old mistakes, and people all over the world bear the consequences.

Getting Civil Society Voices Heard

A few months ago, our organizations – Saferworld, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and Rethinking Security – started reaching out to like-minded organizations around the world to discuss what is wrong with security policies and interventions, and what we should do in response. The conversation immediately generated a buzz – people were excited to find ways for civil society to push back. We were overwhelmed by the remarkably similar stories from organizations working on opposite ends of the world, thousands of miles apart.

We heard how “peacebuilding and conflict transformation approaches are becoming sidelined by security responses,” and how “counterterrorism laws, regulations and policies lead to shrinking space” for alternative solutions. One of our partners in Asia told us that “C/PVE discourse in our region has been weaponized against legitimate dissent and civil society space” to operate.

One of the biggest concerns was the way “P/CVE restricts resources for grassroots civil society organizations, with women’s rights organizations particularly affected.” Given that the only funding available to many such organisations is for P/CVE, as another partner told us, “a key concern is instrumentalization – undermining women and girls’ rights, and restricting support for local women’s rights organizations.” Many activists had feared they were alone in their concerns about these trends, with some simply having given up on trying to push back.

In June in Berlin, dozens of civil society groups got together to share these and other concerns over mainstream international security policy. The group combined both critical voices from countries badly affected by current trends such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, and those working on security policy in Western policy centers such as Washington, New York, London, and Brussels. They came to consider one major question: how can civil society promote security policy alternatives more effectively?

Pushing Through Powerful Headwinds

When you talk to U.S. and European officials about the long list of strategic failures in places like Somalia, Syria or Yemen, their heads immediately start nodding in agreement. A few years down the line, governments often officially acknowledge mistakes – as with the U.K. inquiries on Iraq and Libya, and reports from the U.S. Special Inspector General on Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). But very little changes. Troops are drawn down in one place, but surge into another, or if full-scale military intervention is off the menu for a time, then drone strikes and support for abusive security ‘partners’ come to the fore.

One reason the same approaches persist in spite of their track record is the public and media narrative portraying terrorism and migration as the ultimate threats – and politicians’ increasingly brazen exploitation of these narratives – even long after military leaders acknowledge the diminishing risks or the need to rely less on military tools. Another reason is the importance of weapons sales and energy needs in most industrialized economies and the powerful lobbies that come with them. Such factors hold in place political leaders who lack the vision and courage to push for a more sustainable model of security.

The priorities identified by the peace and rights activists who came to Berlin indicated their strong interest in pushing back in several areas. They included:

  • Disrupting the political and economic factors that perpetuate hard security interventions – for example, challenging economic vested interests and the exclusion of women’s perspectives within security decision-making.
  • Changing the mainstream narrative with its focus on countering short-term “threats” and promoting concrete policy alternatives.
  • Supporting local capacities for conflict prevention and peacebuilding, both by strengthening local voices for peace and human rights in international policy debates and supporting their progressive work in affected countries.
  • Tackling the harm done by military interventions and encouraging better engagement.
  • Increasing accountability for and protection of human rights in all security interventions.

Pursuing these priorities means thinking bigger and working differently. More conversations are needed across the peace and rights sector about funding pressures and co-optation, to ensure a more powerful collective voice in challenging the kinds of security interventions that make peace unobtainable.

Part of changing the narrative on security is about making bad decisions more costly. Advocates will need to find new ways to force accountability for poor decisions, exposing and challenging vested interests.

But then it is also necessary to win the argument about what is needed to build sustainable peace – and what to avoid – in places like Mali, Somalia and Yemen. It is important to make the strategic case that the West has much to lose by profiting from arms sales and backing Gulf powers to confront Iran in Yemen, and everything to gain from pressing regional powers to deescalate tensions and support Yemenis to embark on a peace process that deals constructively with the grievances and divisions that underpin the conflict. In Mali and Somalia, the case is strong for more comprehensive strategies for addressing the abuses and resolving the deep grievances that have fed the conflicts – a much more palatable alternative to remaining locked into endless, unwinnable, destructive counter-terror campaigns.

But apart from making a more cogent case on strategy, creating public pressure for better security policies is fundamentally about re-humanizing security. Fear-mongering over migration and terrorism has obscured and excused much human suffering in poor, unstable contexts. However, at the same time, Western populations still strongly support peace and human rights – and on paper, many governments remain committed to them too. It is time to make sure the public fully understands the harmful impacts of their governments’ interventions on the lives of others, and to reaffirm that security can be built far more effectively and efficiently in solidarity with conflict-affected people rather than at their expense.

(NOTE: If you are interested in working with others to promote security policy alternatives, please contact the authors at

IMAGE: A child passes a French soldier patrolling the streets of Gossi, in east-central Mali, near the border with Burkina Faso, on March 25, 2019. A few kilometers away, the French military was breaking ground on its newest outpost for the 4,500-strong counterterrorism mission Operation Barkhane, which is headquartered in Chad but also operates in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The outpost, on the site of a former United Nations peacekeeping base, is located 150 km west of Gao, in northern Mali, where the mission’s Mali headquarters is located. (Photo by DAPHNE BENOIT/AFP/Getty Images)