News and Events

(14) Wars begin when diplomacy fails; Wars end when diplomacy begins – Ambassador Asif Ahmad

06 August 2014 - His Excellency Asif Ahmad, British Ambassador to the Philippines, was the guest speaker at the Ambassador’s Forum@AIM held last August 4, 2014. He talked about the role of diplomacy in resolving conflict.




Ambassador’s forum @ AIM: August 4, 2014

First Philippine Holdings Caseroom, Asian Institute of Management


Dean Juan Miguel Luz and distinguished members of AIM, I am grateful to you for giving me this timely opportunity to speak at your Ambassadors’ Forum.

The timing is perfect because as I speak, representatives of the Philippine government and Bangsamoro are in talks to continue work on the peace process. My colleagues from the British Embassy are there too as part of the International Contact Group, observing and helping when invited to do so.

Before I go into the substance of the Bangsamoro process, let me broaden out the role of the United Kingdom in global conflicts. The history of Europe as far as you want to go is mired in periods of conflict.Dare I say it, from the Stone Age when man found out he could use a piece of wood as a club, we have repeatedly fought each other within Britain and within Europe and further afield. Empires, Roman, Ottoman or British have come and gone. Each brought with it periods of conflict, conquest and liberation. One can argue that many modern day conflicts are rooted in history. I can also accept the argument that we, the British, are responsible for some of the historical interventions around the world. We drew lines on maps that nations have fought over ever since... in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Americans took exception to our taxation without representation and fought a War of Independence. Others, like India chose a path of negotiated de-colonisation after years of conflict.

But I want to assert that after the traumas of two World Wars, Britain and indeed the majority of countries now want a world where conflict between nations does not happen. The formation of the United Nations, which was first hosted in London, has at its core a desire for peace and peaceful resolution of disputes.

The immediate aftermath of World War II was not peaceful. We saw the drawing of the Iron Curtain. Wars in Korea and in Vietnam, tensions over Cuba seemed to set the two sides of the Communism versus the West towards a path of mutual destruction. Border conflicts between China and India, and India and Pakistan, fortunately were contained. The one conflict that has remained intractable is that between Israel and her neighbours.

Britain as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has taken on a role and responsibility that goes beyond our immediate narrow national security concerns. We take our role in the Security Council seriously and consciously act to reduce tensions, tackle abuse of human rights and when needed, we are prepared to call for decisive and enforceable Security Council resolutions. We act based on universal values and on the basis of being willing to take responsibility for action.

We have had to fight other people's battles or have been drawn into conflict because of instability in other countries.We have had to become a Global Policeman, not because we are powerful but because we have no choice when we face situations where people are victims of aggression and abuse. After Britain's ill fated and failed adventure in the Suez Canal in 1956, we have not taken on the role of an aggressor. That was when President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Britain decided to use military force to regain control. It did not work.

With the exception of the British military campaign to recover the Falkland Islands after the invasion and occupation by Argentina 1982, we have had to deploy forces around the world only for peacekeeping, conflict prevention or to counter terrorism. In 1991, as part of an International coalition, Britain used military force to drive Saddam Hussein's occupying forces out of Kuwait. There was a UN Security Council resolution for that mission. For more than a decade after the Gulf War in 1991, we had to fly daily air force missions over Iraq to prevent Saddam from attacking his own citizens. This No Fly Zone mission was carried out also under UN authority. In 2003, the Security Council repeatedly sought Saddam Hussein's compliance and when that failed, we were drawn into conflict.

In our own back yard in Europe, NATO faced its first serious challenge with the outbreak of conflict in what used to be Yugoslavia in the 1990's. Human rights abuse and the threat of serious escalation led to the UK arguing for intervention. Today, Serbia is no longer in an aggressive posture and may yet join the European Union. By intervening early, we prevented a wider and even more damaging conflict. Our short sharp intervention in Sierra Leone, in Africa, in 2000 has led to the end of fighting. With the protection of the UN, the country has started to turn the corner and is now a functioning democracy. The emergence of Al Qaida and groups inspired by them, created a new global threat. UN Security Council resolutions were ignored by groups who had no national allegiances.

There was no process for diplomacy. IMG_3969.JPG

We then saw the attack on 9/11 in the heart of Manhattan. In Spain, in London, in Indonesia...ordinary citizens going about their daily lives were killed in deliberate and yet indiscriminate acts. Faced with this new nihilistic ideology, all countries which recognised the threat of terrorism, acted together and individually to fight back. In Britain, we had our own home grown terrorists who plotted random acts against ordinary citizens.

We need a different form of diplomacy to tackle terrorism.

We have secured international commitment to deal with how funds flow to terrorist organisations. We share intelligence. We have international standards and guidance on airline security. We have also pushed back the ideology that claims religious legitimacy where there is none. No religion sanctions the killing of innocents, kidnapping for ransom or oppression of women and people of other faiths. We have used freedom of expression so hated by the extremists to speak out and challenge what they do.

The most extreme example of what can happen if we fail to tackle terrorists is Afghanistan. Afghanistan was occupied by a parasite of extremists and the Afghan government had lost control over its own nation. Britain has had to send in repeated rotation of forces to help the elected Afghan government to gain strength and re-establish the basic institutions of public administration. More recently, NATO provided air cover to protect Libyan citizens, when Colonel Qaddafi launched an offensive against his own people. Qaddafi, after years of rogue behavior, seemed to have responded to both military force projection and diplomatic exchanges. But in the end, he could not sustain good behaviour for long.

Looking back....If one is to draw some conclusions from all of the wars between countries since 1947, there are two thoughts that are clear to me. Firstly, wars begin when diplomacy fails and secondly, wars end when diplomacy begins. Very rarely do we have outright decisive military victories. The exceptions where diplomacy has limits are where aggression is based on ideology. 

Nazism could not be stopped by diplomacy. Violence based on religious grounds, especially when faith is hijacked by extremists, does not respond to peace making diplomacy. Arguably, wars waged against countries which had aligned themselves to Beijing and Moscow in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were also based on ideology where diplomacy could not prevent conflict. Capitalism fought Marxism and diplomats did not have a vocabulary or tool kit to deal with either side of the argument. But in the case of Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, I would argue that diplomacy not military victory ended conflict or the threat of war. The military options including the placing of nuclear missiles on alert had run through its course and dialogue took over. In the last century, the strongest example of diplomatic success in my opinion is the Cold War. 

Of course, there were conflicts during that dark period of history. But these were battles by proxy rather than a direct war between the Soviet Union and NATO. Diplomatic exchanges between President Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher blew away the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain was drawn back not through supremacy of ballistic missiles, but by diplomacy that resonated with the will of the people living under the grim shadow of the Warsaw Pact.

Another potential triumph of diplomacy over the threat of conflict, is Iran. The historical interference in Iran by the UK and USA before the Shah fell in 1979, is seen by many commentators as the genesis of Iran's progressively aggressive posture in geopolitics. The ransacking of the US embassy and hostage taking of US diplomats by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the guise of students in 1979, has led to one of the longest breaks in diplomatic relations in history. The attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011, again by agents of the Iranian government, led to our suspension of diplomatic relations too. The Iranian government seemed to have embarked on a path of determination to develop nuclear weapon grade enriched uranium. The UN inspection regime was hindered at every turn. The outlook was bleak.

And yet, the UK and other leading members of the EU kept a diplomatic channel open. And the results are beginning to come through. There is a mood of optimism that diplomacy will draw Iran into a path of peaceful coexistence rather than escalating confrontation. We are about to reopen our Embassy in Tehran.

In talking about the role of successful diplomacy in conflict, I cannot ignore history where international diplomatic intervention failed. Britain’s misadventure in the Suez was the failure of London to read the diplomatic signals that were apparent from Washington in 1956. The USA did not support Britain. The mood after World War II was against a return to colonial behaviour. We got it wrong and that in turn led to the birth of new nations around the world as they chose independence over British rule. Kenya, Ghana, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and many more joined the family of sovereign states to plan their own destiny. So perhaps, Suez was a failure with a silver lining.

Iraq, however, has not yet been a diplomatic success. Saddam Hussein, in both conflicts, in 1991 and 2003 had the opportunity to respond to diplomatic initiatives, but he chose the path of conflict instead. And sustained diplomacy by the UK, often in very hostile conditions, continues in Iraq to help the elected government deal with communal violence.

In Serbia, Milosovich repeatedly ignored international help to resolve ethnic tensions and conflict followed. Not just once in Bosnia but again in Kosovo.

Since the second Iraq War, it has become more difficult for diplomacy in the theatre of conflict. Part of the reason is that conflicts are now more often internal within countries rather than between countries. That is why there was no consensus on Syria as to how to deploy diplomacy or whether to use international military force. The result of this impasse is that the conflict grows in intensity daily. The humanitarian toll on ordinary citizens inside Syria and those who are now refugees, is terrible. Libya is deteriorating fast and again there is no clear opportunity for diplomacy to find a way through violence between communities.There is still a lust for blood in Libya. It seems that decades of abuse has left a dysfunctional society devoid of humanity.

And when the world was looking the other way, Russia took an unexpected step backwards. In taking the Crimea by force, Russia has violated the sovereignty of Ukraine. And now by active intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia walks the path of a rogue state. Here we have a member of Security Council behaving in a way that contradicts everything the United Nations stands for. And the UN General Assembly said so too collectively and emphatically when they voted condemning Russia's actions.

If there was any doubt here in the Philippines that the Ukraine was some far off place of no concern to Manila... Well… we had the most tragic reminder of how events in one part of the world can affect another. The missile attack on Malaysian Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine took many lives, including 3 Pinoys and 10 British citizens. No amount of disinformation and posturing by Russia will turn the eyes of the world away from Moscow.It is Russia's presence and complicity in the conflict in Ukraine that has led to the loss of the lives of passengers who had no reason to be killed by a deliberate missile attack.

And closer to this region, I see countries that want to revive old battles or want to resort to crude demonstrations of military might to endanger the security not just of countries, but also international airspace and maritime security. To them I say, as members of the United Nations, respect the Charter. If you have disputes then use the rules and the processes that are there to resolve them. No mother or father wants to see their son or daughter come home in a body bag because of the folly of their governments. We do not want a miscalculation or an accident to derail the positive track of economic progress and development in Asia.

As I have now come closer to the Philippines in my speech, perhaps this is a good opportunity to talk about the role of diplomacy in Bangsamoro. But to tell you the story of Britain's engagement in trying to end this 60 year old conflict, I have to take you back to London.

On a cold November Friday in 2008 in London, I heard the news that the Supreme Court of the Philippines had finally ruled that the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain was unconstitutional. And that brought to an end a long and hard process of making peace. I was at the time responsible for Britain's Foreign Policy for countries including ASEAN. I have to confess we had limited understanding of the real nature of the conflict in Mindanao or indeed the dynamics of the negotiations. However, I began to wonder whether we could play a role.

IMG_4013.JPGI looked at some of the features of the dispute and saw some parallels with our own history in Britain. We had a troubled past in Ireland. For 700 years a largely Catholic community was ruled by Britain. Waves of migration from England and Scotland created a minority Protestant society, particularly in the north. After repeated failures of political negotiations, Irish Republicans took up arms against direct rule by London. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland was born. But to accommodate the significant minority, Northern Ireland was left out of the new country. That in turn created a new problem. Catholics living in Northern Ireland became a minority community on an island where they were the majority. Not only were they a minority, the law, customs and practice ensured that Catholics had fewer rights and opportunities in Northern Ireland. The violence between Protestant Unionists and Catholic republicans grew in intensity. A form of self government within Northern Ireland lurched from one crisis to another.

From the 1960's we saw street demonstrations and then the use of arms and bombs in Northern Ireland and then in England. 1969, the British Army was deployed and direct rule from London began. Peace talks started and failed. The prisons filled up with people who were fighting for what they believed was a just cause. The increasing success of opposition politicians in Northern Ireland meant that only a politically negotiated settlement was possible.

We had to wait until 1998 before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In the same year, referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, secured the approval of the peace agreement by the people of the island. Then began the process of disarmament of militias, elections, participation in government where people who bore arms against each other sit and work with each other.

No single event signifies what has been achieved more perhaps than the fact the Her Majesty the Queen made a state visit to Ireland in 2011. This was the first ever visit to the Republic by a British monarch.

And it was with this history in mind that I began to think that perhaps Britain was in a position to be of help in the peace process of Bangsamoro. The parallels between Northern Ireland and Mindanao were clear.

Muslims in the Philippines, like Catholics in Northern Ireland, became a minority community marginalised and excluded from the prosperity of the country. The root of the difficulties were planted in colonial times. Both had armed groups and the death toll was mounting in Britain as it was in the Philippines. Peace talks and political processes had been tried and none had found success. And yet, in the case of Northern Ireland, all sides were able to work through a process that led to an agreement that everyone believes is now irreversible.

We were fortunate to have the support of the international community in building trust and the necessary institutions to make transition to implementation. I put a proposition to the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband that we should offer to share our experience with the Philippines and see if there was a will to resume dialogue after the adverse Supreme Court ruling. The Foreign Secretary agreed and we were subsequently invited to join the International Contact Group. We joined the ICG in December 2009.

As President Arroyo's term was coming to an end, the challenge of finding a route to peace fell to President Aquino. From Day One, President Aquino made peace in Bangsamoro one of his top priorities. His leadership ensured that Malaysia remained engaged as the facilitator of the negotiations between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The United Kingdom and other members of the ICG including Japan and Turkey, have supported the peace process through the challenges and triumphs.

We have attended every meeting in Kuala Lumpur. We have offered examples from the UK and other parts of the world. Sometimes, we have expressed support for the views of each side and at times we have challenged them too. But always as a friend, committed to finding a sustained peace settlement. We brought in front line politicians from Northern Ireland to explain how our peace deal was done. Senior government and police officers visited the Philippines to share experience. We sponsored visits from Mindanao as well as Manila so that people would have a firsthand view of how a devolved administration works. Some of the Filipino experts have had the opportunity to study in the UK to enable them to use a different perspective to find a way through difficult issues.

   Photo source:

So when we witnessed the historic signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro on 27 March, we were not just celebrating the hard work of the Government and MILF panel members. We were also celebrating the role of international diplomacy.

And if you will forgive me for saying this, it was a private celebration for me personally too. I had the opportunity to witness the signing of the agreement and being called on stage for the photograph session. From that  cold November day in London in 2008 to a balmy warm Manila afternoon in 2014, I had been a part of a diplomatic initiative that will hopefully eradicate conflict in the Philippines.

Our work did not come to an end with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement. In the tough process of turning the agreement into the Basic Law of Bangsamoro, we have responded to invitations to participate in discussions to finalise a text that will meet the expectations and needs of the people who will live in Bangsamoro, Muslims, Christians, Indigenous peoples.

The Basic Law also has to be compliant with the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines. By its very nature, a negotiated peace settlement means that both sides have to accommodate their differences. Neither side will get all that they wanted. The big difference now is that there will be a channel to negotiate further political aims in the future without the use of violent force. And there is a fundamental understanding that the Bangsamoro will remain an integral part of the Philippines. All sides are working hard to prepare a draft Bill for the Senate and Congress to consider. There is a mutually shared aim to come up with language that brings to life the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro.

There is also an understanding that, like any other system of devolution in the world, central government has a critical and sometimes unique role in the administration of the country's policies. When members of the legislature work on the Bill, I am sure the advocates for real and lasting peace will prevail. This is a time for statesmanship and courage. This is a time for delivering justice and not petty legal nit picking. It is a time for visionaries not the short sighted. Those who believe that devolution is a challenge to sovereignty should realise that it is the exact opposite. A properly resourced and led Bangsamoro will deliver socio-economic benefits to the people of the South, benefits that the Republic has failed to provide since independence.

The new administration of the Bangsamoro will have the weight of expectation on their shoulder. They have to do better than the ARMM did with the levers of power and resources. They have to deliver real outcomes to the people, not just the Muslims but for everyone. Simply matching what LGUs achieve elsewhere in the Philippines won't be enough. They have to set higher standards because the current level of delivery is poor in many places in the Philippines with poverty, poor health and insufficient facilities for education.

In our case, we have devolved administrations not just in Northern Ireland, but also Wales and Scotland. And in the case of Scotland, the British Prime Minister has risen to the challenge of the nationalist politicians who have long campaigned for independence. The people of Scotland will decide on 18 September whether to stay in the UK or leave. There is every confidence that the voters will see the overwhelming benefits of being a part of the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, the Bangsamoro, Cordilleras or in Taguig, if people have livelihoods, education, housing, and healthcare and a share of the nation's prosperity, they are not going to seek alternative forms of governance. You do not keep the unity of a country by forcing people to bear injustice, unity comes from good governance.

The responsibility for a successful Bangsamoro is a shared one. It is all too easy to sub-contract the role of good governance to a devolved authority and have a bahala na mindset in the capital city. We were guilty of that very fault in the UK for decades when the troubles in Northern Ireland escalated. It was not until the bombs exploded in London, Birmingham and other parts of England that we realised the compelling need to address the conflict.

In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society of Great Britain we found it hard to believe that a Catholic-Protestant divide was possible. In the end it was our realisation as a country that the troubles of Northern Ireland were our troubles and that the solution had to come from the United Kingdom as a whole.

In the Philippines, it is perhaps a similar lack of awareness and indifference that has caused the gap in understanding between the majority and minority faith communities and indigenous peoples. For Bangsamoro to be a success, the issue has to be treated not as one that can be contained and segregated from the rest of the country. The ghetto mindset has to move into that of the mainstream. That means just as London has to think of Belfast, Manila has to occupy its mind on Cotabato.

In a country where the Constitution separates religion from State, officials can choose to be secular or inclusive. Exclusive expressions of devotion of one group in government institutions and agencies whilst ignoring another sends a message that the minority do not belong.

Prosperity in Bangsamoro will not come just from the wealth sharing elements of the peace agreement. Real prosperity will come when Makati business and foreigners choose to invest and grow their enterprises there. The end of violence and the establishment of the rule of law will mean that business in Tawi Tawi or Sulu or indeed any part of Bangsamoro will be in a position to harvest the peace dividend.

For our part, we will remain committed to the diplomatic process and engage when we are invited to do so. We will draw in our partners in the EU and other like minded countries to add their support too.

The incoming elected officials of the Bangsamoro may want to benefit from examples in our devolved administrations. Officers of various agencies will find parallel institutions in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. We removed the British Army from the streets of Belfast and other towns and reformed the Police when peace was secured. We are happy to share what worked well and what could have been done better.

If the central government in Manila needs to consider options on its relationship with the Bangsamoro executive, we have practical experience that can act as a point of reference. If new challenges appear on the horizon, I am sure we can work together on those too. We have already shone a light on the Bangsamoro peace process as a example of how the will to succeed and the appetite to take calculated risks has started to pay off. Representatives of all sides have participated in events in the UK and elsewhere to inspire other countries will long running internal conflict to follow the Philippine example. And as a British diplomat, what does the prospect of a Bangsamoro settlement mean?

Well, the former Foreign Secretary William Hague asked me the same question just before I took up my post in Manila. I said to him " Foreign Secretary, when the Bangsamoro comes into existence, it will be the first Muslim linked issue the UK will have engaged in and helped to resolve, without the need to use military force."

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the ultimate proof of diplomacy in conflict resolution. Because once an issue requires military intervention, diplomacy has failed.

I can assure you of one thing when it comes to Bangsamoro, diplomacy will prevail.


About Ambassador Asif Ahmad

H.E. Asif Ahmad was appointed as Ambassador to the Philippines in July 2013. He has visited Manila a number of times in the last 10 years in his role as Director Asia for UK Trade and Investment and later as the head of the team in London that covers Britain’s foreign policy interests in ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Just after serving as Ambassador in Thailand and Laos, 2010-2012, Asif learnt some Filipino in London to prepare for his move to the Philippines.

Source: Official Website of the UK Government


About the Ambassador's Forum @ AIM 

The Ambassadors’ Forum @ AIM is a venue for the professional exchange of knowledge and skills related to international development issues and trends. Its objectives are: (1) to broaden the regional and global perspective of AIM students taking up both the Master in Development Management and the Masters in Business Management,  (2) to provide a venue for the exchange of information for foreign ambassadors in Manila, and (3) to educate the community at large on internal relations and development issues and trends as they affect the Philippines and the region. Through the forum, ambassadors and embassy officials have been invited to discuss their countries’ views on Asian issues including political regimes, economics, finance, trade systems, demographics and migration, climate change and energy, strategic security, and world view.   

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