Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs
Rights groups criticize incendiary attacks in Syria.
Important new report on Syrian child casualties.
On corpse-counting in former war zones.
"Terminator ethics" discussions among autonomous weapons proponents.
Momentum among humanitarian stakeholders how to curb explosive violence.
972 Mag on tensions between animal rights and human rights movements. Time on how trauma journalism worsens relief efforts in the Phillipines. Killer Apps on US military basing and humanitarianism.
Obama Administration is under fire again on drones after drones hit a Pakistani seminary. Opposition forces in Pakistan are calling for the government to start shooting drones on sight. Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant on what's being a drone co-pilot is like. Meanwhile weaponized drones are proliferating: WAPO on Pakistan's new domestic drones; BBC on China's emerging drone arsenal.
via PolsciRumors: is scholarship broken?
Academia according to The Onion.
Berkeley professor's viral email on why he will not be canceling class tomorrow.
Maya Mikdashi on Thanksgiving as a teaching moment.
NASA: Comet Ison may hit a solar storm.
Humans can now touch things far away by reaching through their computer screens.
Short film portraying the other side of Ryan Stone's Gravity distress call is in running for an Oscar nomination.
I realize I am putting my Twitter standings at great risk by potentially appearing to make light of an important social issue.* But when I found this treatise on the importance of tighter regulations for dragons I couldn't resist sharing. Happy Friday!
*Though I hate to disagree with anyone whose work I admire so greatly, and though no one can really argue with Katee Sakhoff's call for gun safety, as a political scientist I must say that Sakhoff is wrong on gun control. First, there is important evidence from experimental studies that on average, children (especially boys) cannot be trained in gun safety reliably enough to prevent the sort of accidents in the article to which her tweet referred, so the idea that training children in gun safety will solve these problems is mistaken. Second, her claim that tighter gun laws can "never happen in the US" flies in the face of much evidence to the contrary. US history is replete with norms - civil rights, women's suffrage, etc - pushed through by the federal government against the vocal opposition of a conservative minority, and eventually accepted. Comparative examples (like Australia) suggest the same could ultimately be true for guns, and the lynchpin would be conservative leadership in favor of stricter rules. Given Sakhoff's new standing with the gun lobby on the basis of her tweet and star(buck) power, she herself could exercise a positive or negative influence on this debate.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots secured an important victory last week when delegates of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) voted unanimously to take up the issue as part of their work to oversee the implementation and further development of the 1980 treaty, which regulates weapons causing inhuman injuries to combatants or civilians.
The CCW process, which includes yearly meetings of state parties as well as review conferences every five years, have become a periodic forum for discussions not only of how to enforce existing rules, but of norm-building around the humanitarian effects of conventional weapons broadly. Norms around landmines, cluster munitions, blinding lasers and incendiary weapons have been incubated in this forum in the past, so it is no surprise that anti-AWS campaigners used this year's meeting in Geneva as an opportunity to press their cause regarding the dangers of autonomous weapons.
As Matthew Bolton writes, that governments voted to "mandate" the CCW process to examine AWS means the issue is decisively on not just the humanitarian disarmament advocacy agenda but also on the international agenda. This "mandate" to consider the issue will include a
threefour-day meeting next year, and a report by the Chair to the States Parties. A single veto could have prevented this international body from further consideration of the issue, and the fact that important stakeholders like Russia and the US did not forestall a larger discussion signals the salience of the issue and the tremendous agenda-setting success enjoyed by the campaign so far.
As captured in the final images of this important new documentary, there seem to be at least three different debates going on about drones:
The first is reflected in a recent op-ed titled "Five Ways Obama Could Fix Drones Right Now." Here, Sarah Holewinski of CIVIC and Larry Lewis, a Center for Naval Analyses researcher whose classified data on drone deaths made headlines a few months back, argue that the US' drone strike policy is ok on its merits but could be far more humane, both in measures taken to reduce collateral damage and restorative justice for civilians harmed in drone attacks. First, by taking drones out of CIA hands, and letting war-law-trained DOD folks handle the program, the US increases the chances of hitting militants instead of the civilians. Second, in cases where civilians are harmed, the US government could do far more to acknowledge, atone for and make amends for that harm. (Condolence payments would be helpful, but so would mere acknowledgement: the fact that only five Congresspersons showed up to hearing of drone strike survivors who had traveled from Pakistan to brief US policymakers is an embarrassing example of how far the US has to go in this regard.)
This is in stark contrast to a view reflected in this new report co-authored by two human rights heavyweights, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which suggests that the US drone strike policy itself is probably unethical and illegal irrespective of the collateral damage problem. Even if the US hit only the targets it is aiming for - high-value targets and their associated 'suspected militants' - this violates international rules against the arbitrary deprivation of life when undertaken outside a conventional battlefield. The issue here is extrajudicial executions - an issue bigger than Pakistan and bigger than drones.
In even greater contrast to Holewinski/Lewis' argument is a consortium of NGOs who argue weaponized drones should be banned altogether - whether or not they are used for targeted killings or for lawful military operations. This argument draws on a frame soup of arguments having to do with the psychological costs of "joystick warrioring," the fear that drones make war easier, the slippery slope toward automated killing, the civilian body count problem, and the general public fear of "flying killer robots," on top of the opprobrium against targeted killings that this movement shares with the mainstream human rights community. While I do not see this as a campaign that is likely to pick up speed among international elites and result in an actual drone ban anytime soon for several reasons, it is notable that for a large number of civil society organizations the key policy solution is to ban drones altogether rather than use them more lawfully.
In my view, all these arguments have some merit but the most important thing to focus on is the issue of extrajudicial killing, rather than the means used to do it, for two reasons.
Killer Robot Blogging:
This week, NGOs are massing in Geneva to encourage states party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons to consider banning autonomous weapons under the auspices of this treaty. This follows the UN Disarmament Committee meetings in New York in October, where multiple countries expressed concern about this issue. As in New York, NGO campaigners will be holding side events and briefings in Geneva to press their claim that these weapons should be banned.
A report form the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University outlines the complicity of US medical professionals in Bush-era "enhanced interrogations" at Camp X-Ray.
OpenGlobalRights kicks off a series on human rights funding.
Swedish cinemas have introduced a new rating for gender bias based on the "Bechtel system."
After several years of urging by scientists, the United Nations has finally adopted an asteroid defense policy.
Don Howard on the moral imperative of driverless cars.
Iron Man will soon be a reality.
Invisible bike helmets already are.
I am traveling this week for the 40th Anniversary Celebration at the Center for the Study of Women in Society at University of Oregon, where I completed my doctoral work ten years ago next month. CSWS was kind enough to fund field travel for my dissertation back then, which became my first book, and it's a pleasure to be back to present at their event. In a few hours I'll present a short talk on "War and Civilian Security," tying together my earlier work on gender and civilian immunity with emerging and very urgent trends in human security norm development. The YouTube version is here:
Lionel Beehner and Joseph Young write in The National Interest that while targeted killing by drone strike is increasingly denounced (and decreasingly used by states), cross-border incursions by counter-terror ground troops are an increasingly accepted practice – despite the fact that both violate state sovereignty.
Citing the capture of Abu Anas Al-Libi by US special ops in Libya, drug kingpins by Brazil in Bolivia and Peru, and the frequency of cross-border incursions in Africa, they express surprise that not all violations of sovereignty are equally frowned upon, and explain this based on the idea of credible commitment:
“It is precisely because these commando missions are more serious and risky that they have become more legitimized in the eyes of the international community than drone strikes. Such missions signal a greater seriousness and commitment to the mission. They require states to have more ‘skin in the game.’”
That’s an interesting hypothesis. Still, I don’t think the piece makes much conceptual or empirical sense and actually clouds a couple of important issues.
First, the relevant distinction is not between ground troops and drones. It is between hunt and kill missions, which can be accomplished on the ground or by air, and raid-and-snatch missions which require ground troops. The greater acceptability the authors point to, is not for commando missions per se, but for raid-and-snatch missions specifically, as an alternative to the far more morally dubious targeted killing policy increasingly decried by human rights groups. This should not be confused, as the authors do, with the emergence of a blanket international acceptance of unilateral sovereignty violations by special ops: ground troops, after all, can also commit extrajudicial executions and/or use disproportionate violence and if they do so I cannot imagine this would be considered any less opprobrious than drone attacks – indeed, as the authors suspect, it might be considered moreso. Such missions also probably shouldn't be conflated with multilaterally-sanctioned humanitarian interventions, which are the kinds of missions primarily referred to in the article on Africa the authors cite.
Secondly, the authors’ focus on sovereignty and military risk-taking rather than due process and civilian harm mitigation leads the authors to some wildly unsupportable conclusions about international norms.
The term “shadow wars” aptly describes the U.S. approach to the war on terror. Policymakers perceive they are fighting an enemy composed of shadow and dust, one hidden in and facilitated by the dark underworld of global politics. But to prosecute this campaign, the U.S. has itself, to borrow a term from the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, “fallen into shadow”: Its moral high ground and once-principled politics have been replaced by a recourse to policies such as arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings that have tarnished its reputation and bolstered its enemies.
The blowback from these policies demonstrates that a just war cannot be fought using unjust means—indeed their use erodes the moral authority to fight truly just wars when the need arises. Winding down this “war” both necessitates and provides a window for stepping out of the shadows and adhering to basic standards of international law and human rights.
Drones are on the international agenda this week, with Pakistan excoriating the US at the General Assembly and with human rights heavyweights Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch launching a new and scathing joint report.
OpenGlobalRights, OpenDemocracy's global-south-oriented human rights wing, is having a number of interesting articles on the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine: here, here and views on the subject from India here.
New York Times Magazine's online coverage of the South China Sea territorial dispute breaks ground in mainstream multi-media journalism. Seriously, check it out.
[Note: This is a guest post by Lauren Wilcox, Lecturer in Gender Studies at University of Cambridge, and author of "Machines that Matter: The Politics and Ethics of ‘Unnatural’ Bodies" in Iver Neumann and Nicholas Kiersey eds, Battlestar Galactica and International Relations, Routledge 2012]
In a recent blog post on the Monkey Cage, Heather Roff-Perkins is concerned that military robots are being built with masculine characteristics. She is correct that gender is one of many pertinent issues surrounding contemporary military technologies but in my opinion she doesn’t go far enough in considering the nuances of gender and what gender embodiment entails in an age of artificial intelligence and war-fighting.
If militaries were to rely upon gendered tropes to embody ‘robots’ or ‘autonomous machines’ such as those that have populated the imagination of science fiction, there is no easy delineation between war-fighting ‘masculine’ robots that look like Terminators and feminine caring robots. In fact, there may well be ‘robots’ that rely upon other gendered assumptions about women and violence. The science fiction and noir genre and literature/media provides us with a counter-narrative: the femme fatale. See, for example, Battlestar Galactica’s “6” played by Tricia Helfer, a cylon whose seduces Baltar, a computer scientist, into giving her access to the defense computer mainframe which enables the cylon fleet to destroy the Twelve Colonies. The figure of the femme fatale is of a beautiful woman who uses men’s attraction to her in order to carry out some subterfuge or other nefarious plan. This kind of violent women is both ‘monster’ and ‘whore’ according to the two of the dominant representations of violent women. Female suicide bombers are often represented in similar way. In term of the creation of nonhuman warfighters, it is not clear that only robots that contain masculine characteristics would fit gendered narratives of violence. Moreover, it is not clear, if we are not talking about ascribed characteristics of bodies that are sexed as male or female, what exactly is meant by gender. The machinic bodies of ‘robots’ pose an interesting theoretical challenge here.
Roff-Perkins is concerned with the gendering of humanoid robots, and she argues that making humanoid robots in ways that reproduce typically masculine or typically feminine characteristics engages in gender essentialism and reaffirms traditional gender roles:
In one fell swoop, roboticists and engineers undermine years of fighting for equal rights and opportunities and it reaffirms the notions that ‘masculinity’ equates with power and if femininity is even constructed, it is done so by its absence or its ‘role’.
However, there is an element of essentialism in Roff-Perkins’s own argument. Roff-Perkins seems to assume that the relationship between masculinity and technology is stable and unambiguous when it is in fact much more ambiguous.
Killer Robots: Wired reports on developments in autonomous weaponry, quoting military personnel who say the idea is to think of them "not as tools but as members of the squad." Video gamers collaboratively solved a decade-old puzzle about the complex structure of an enzyme relevant to HIV-AIDS research, suggesting human spatial reasoning is superior to algorithms: a point not at all lost on those who think putting complex situational life and death judgments into machine hands is a bad idea. 270 engineers, roboticists a computer science experts have signed a statement demanding a ban. Kenneth Anderson argues against. The United Nations Disarmament Committee meets this week and at the behest of campaigners, France has called for autonomous weapons to be on the agenda. Civil society groups released a new call for international talks, and held a side event at the meeting Monday afternoon, aiming to increase interest in the issue and support for a ban.
Civilian protection campaigner Sarah Holewinski is honored in a write-up at Ozy.com.
Former child soldier Omar Khadr, whose confession was extracted under torture, will remain in a Canadian federal prison. My students are watching this film about Khadr this week.
Human Rights and Society:
Elite British students have been asked to justify murdering civilians on a scholarship essay question.
UNIFEM has a new and fairly disturbing ad campaign using Google search results to highlight sexism.
Mark Bittman on the politics of hunger.
And Don't Panic But:
For a brief moment a few weeks back, law and policy elites in the US gave serious consideration to whether there was a legal basis for a military strike in Syria, either under the auspices of civilian protection or norm protection. White House rhetoric quickly shifted away from humanitarian intervention and toward “norm enforcement” and with it the policy debate shifted from whether or not military strikes were the best tool toward that end (for now, the answer is ‘not until diplomatic options have been exhausted.’)
In either case, the conventional wisdom among diplomats, law specialists and political scientists (including at the Duck) seems to have settled on the argument that a military strike, however justifiable at whatever point for whichever reason, would have definitely been and would in the future be illegal under the UN Charter unless the authorized by the Security Council. When Kerry talks about that option remaining on the table, people understand that he is essentially saying the US is willing to go against the UN Charter, if needed, to enforce its perceived security interests and wider normative obligation – just as NATO bent UN Charter rules to avert a genocide in Kosovo in 1999.
After more thought however, we wonder if US acceptance of this narrative on the essential illegality (though potential legitimacy) of unilateral intervention in Syria isn't an interesting puzzle for two reasons. First, in the Syrian case, there may in fact be a scenario in which the letter of the UN Charter could conceivably be invoked in support of military force without Security Council authorization – namely the doctrine of collective self-defense. Second, while this argument is probably a legal stretch, the US has never shied away from at least attempting precisely such legal stretching to justify bending not only the UN Charter but also breaking even more iron-clad rules such as the norms against torture and extrajudicial execution. We think the fact they are not moving to do so in this case indicates something interesting both about the configuration of international norms today and the nature of their regulative effects over even the most powerful states.
Counter-intuitively, the first large-scale attack of chemical weapons (CW) in twenty five years is having the effect of actually reinforcing the CW taboo. Notably, both sides in Syria continue to deny that they used CW, reinforcing view that CW use unacceptable for anyone wanting to be accepted as a legitimate state actor in the international community. While there are of course counter-narratives, the fairly widespread government, public and media outcry, and politics of response including their justifications which typically stigmatize CW, have served to reinforce the norm overall, as of course has the remarkable ascension of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention and ambitious schedule to eliminate Syria’s CW capability. These dynamics embody a central insight of constructivist accounts of norms articulated by Kratchowil and Ruggie in their seminal article in 1986: that norms can be valid even when violated, what matters are their justifications and how others respond to such violations.
These reactions are significantly different from the last previous violation of the CW taboo, by Iraq in the 1980s, where that use was relatively ignored in comparison by governments. This is very significant, as the tepid reaction to Iraq at the time was consistent with the longer historical pattern, which had been that the use of CW since WWI was to be avoided, but use in areas outside the industrialized - “civilized” - world were, well, more quietly tolerated. But after the Iran-Iraq war and the use of CW by Iraq against its own Kurdish population, the international community responded with a dramatic expansion of the CW taboo in the form of the CWC. That has put the taboo on another institutionalized level which has enabled the eventual outcome of pressuring Syria to join the CWC to ensure broadly multilaterally supported CW disarmament, leaving only 6 states as non-parties to this agreement. Thus, even though the taboo was violated, there is not a stampede of would-be violators waiting in the wings to follow suit in the event of Syria escaping a US military response. This stands in contrast to, say, what many believe was the greater damage done by the Bush Administration to the torture taboo since many governments could well be more willing to follow suit.
One of the most potentially troubling developments in the discourse, however, has been the way some skeptics have raised the question of why there is all the fuss about CW as such a red line. Nothing wrong with such open inquiry of course, but what is troubling is what seems to be implied – if not always stated outright; namely, why should we care about this norm when more people are dying from other weapons? John Mueller in Foreign Affairs is skeptical that CW are really any worse than AK47s; but does this really imply that we shouldn’t care about limiting CW?
Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Arms Trade Treaty last week, which can be read here in its entirety. Humanitarian disarmament groups hail this as a victory. Guns rights groups call it a travesty.
Signing the treaty probably won't matter much in legal terms for the United States. NYT editorial opinion aside, ratification is highly unlikely. The US is known for signing and not ratifying humanitarian treaties: international agreements to which it is (or was once) party in the dreams of the Executive Branch alone include the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Treaty of the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
Yet signing a treaty is not a pointless exercise.
Gunmen killed scores of students in their sleep at Yobe State College of Agriculture in Nigeria early Sunday morning.
The NYTimes' Sunday expose on accidental guns deaths and children is a sickening, horrifying read sure to galvanize attention but is almost too sweeping to grasp. Two key points almost hidden among the anecdotes of gross parental neglect in leaving guns lying around for children to shoot each other with: a) absence of a federal standard for coding and tracking accidental v. intentional gun deaths makes it difficult to have an informed debate weighing public health costs against citizen safety concerns and b) "safety training" for children about guns doesn't seem to work, at least with boys: experimental trials as well as anecdotal evidence shows boys will pick up and handle guns where they find them, and pressure one another to do so, regardless of safety training.
The Guardian reported Thursday on slave-like conditions among migrant workers building infrastructure for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar: workers are dying of heart attacks in the desert heat for lack of water, have had their passports confiscated and are being beaten and refused pay if they complain. FIFA organizers as well as many human rights organizations are "appalled," but debate still seems focused less on the conditions of workers and whether Qatar should thus have its bid revoked, but rather on whether the tournament itself should be held in winter so the athletes don't have to suffer in the heat.
The Boston Globe reports on vaccinations, measles and health security. In other health-and-human-security news, important information for soccer moms everywhere: driving causes problems with the pelvis and ovaries (according to Saudi Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan).
For International Peace Day last week, volunteers stenciled 9,000 fallen bodies on Normandy Beach.
Former Duck guest blogger Betcy Jose has published an excellent Foreign Affairs Snapshot pointing out the irony of a robust norm enforcement operation in Syria to protect the chemical weapons taboo, while perversely ignoring, even permitting, the violation of a far more foundational norm: the norm of civilian immunity.
The whole piece is great but I especially liked the "puzzle" paragraph:
Today, civilian immunity arguably ranks among the most important norms that the global community wants to protect. And that is what makes discussions about Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons so puzzling. Much of the debate about U.S. military strikes stressed the importance of preserving the taboo on chemical weapons, which were banned in part because of their indiscriminate nature: They are difficult to control and can harm civilians who are not the intended targets... In Syria’s case, it appears that the Syrian regime aimed to kill civilians with its alleged chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus last month. Hardly anyone concludes that the civilian deaths were simply collateral damage in an operation meant to take out the rebels. Therefore, examining the civilian deaths through the lens of the norm against the use of chemical weapons is wrongheaded. Civilians died because Syria violated the taboo against deliberate attacks on civilians. Some have even suggested that the general lack of global condemnation following other intentional attacks on Syrian civilians might have paved the way for this most recent atrocity. If that is so, the international community should expend as much effort (if not more) protecting the civilian immunity norm as it is protecting the chemical weapons taboo. Doing so could serve double duty, preventing these kinds of targeted attacks on civilians, as well as the use of chemical weapons in such attacks.
Seemingly, the chemical weapons taboo is much more robust than the norm against killing civilians per se, given that it was so much more readily reinforced. Jose's piece focuses on calling this out (quite rightly) as a moral inconsistency. But what explains this puzzle? How might we make sense of this in political terms, particularly if the chemical weapons taboo is based on the desire to avoid indiscriminate killing of civilians, as claimed by both the conventional scholarly wisdom and much mainstream political commentary.
Originally circulating as "Every Sci-Fi Starship Ever In One Mind-Blowing Comparison Chart," there are some pretty important gaps in this picture, including (allegedly) no Serenity and nothing from Spaceballs. Still, a noble endeavor.