The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Reversing the Gun Sights, Revisited

March 15, 2015

In about a month, High Contracting Parties to the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons will again consider the humanitarian and ethical problems posed by fully autonomous lethal weapons. As I’ve written before, this issue in on the UN agenda due to a savvy and well-organized network of “humanitarian disarmament” NGOs. This coalition is keen to reconstruct governments’ interpretation of how to balance military utility with humanitarian concerns when it comes to emerging technologies of violence. Yet with the landmine and cluster munitions campaigns considered some of the landmark successes in global civil society advocacy, it is fascinating how little of the transnational advocacy networks scholarly literature focuses in empirical or theoretical terms on the humanitarian disarmament sector.

Nothing throws this into sharper relief than teaching a graduate seminar in human security, and attempting to blend “transnational advocacy” week with a humanitarian disarmament focus. Aside from seminal articles by Richard Price and Nina Tannenwald, plus my own now-very-dated piece and a scattering of analyses by Clifford Bob and Noha Shawki, one is hard pressed to find good theory-driven treatments of TAN politics that utilize empirics from the area of disarmament rather than human rights, development, humanitarian affairs or the environment. And I have yet to see TAN articles that address the reconstituted nuclear ban campaign, or developments around incendiary weapons or explosive violence.*

Thankfully, two recently published articles offer both an up-to-date overview of this advocacy landscape and suggestions for how to fill this analytical gap.

First is Keith Krause‘s 2014 piece in Global Policy, entitled “Transnational Civil Society Activism and International Security Politics,” in which he points out that most TAN literature has focused on human rights, development and the environment to the exclusion of what he calls the “peace and security sector,” and urges scholars to pay more attention to these developments. According to Krause, who writes as a participant-observer from his vantage point at Small Arms Survey, this sector is characterized by some possibly unique dynamics relative to other advocacy networks. Krause claims an emphasis on expert authority and a high level of policy uncertainty together provide conditions conducive to framing issues in politically advantageous ways for TANs – but also for counter-movements. But he also points out the embeddedness of these networks within the state system, and the way the hierarchy of global NGO activity in this area reproduces the hierarchy of states; and he asks critical questions about the focus on the global health implications of weapons (versus gender violence, for example).

The second terrific new contribution to this area is Denise Garcia‘s International Affairs article on “Humanitarian Security Regimes,” in which she applies regime theory to describe the evolution and impact of this NGO sector. Garcia has been embedded in the humanitarian disarmament community for many years and writes with an ethnographer’s eye. Aside from some really nice deep description of the way this sector “de-securitizes” issues, Garcia offers an important insight about its procedural power: whereas most advocacy networks attempt to implement, monitor or enforce existing norms, disarmament groups build new norms out of whole cloth… often by excluding veto players from law-making processes. They then rely on the stigma of stronger norms to bind/impact non-signatories. Garcia quotes an activist: “They may not join the treaty, but the treaty will join them.”

Of course these articles constitute theory-building efforts rather than theory testing, and these insights should be converted into testable propositions and analyzed against advocacy in other issue areas. We need new analyses of how effective this norm-driven versus law-driven strategy is in changing state behavior, and how much is lost in the kind of state-non-state partnerships that both Garcia and Krause emphasize. Fortunately I saw some up-and-coming analyses at ISA this year by emerging scholars trying to do just this, and the research terrain is wide open to be filled by this new spate of studies.

To Krause and Garcia I will add one additional observation that also may or may not be borne out by more careful future study. It seems to me that humanitarian disarmament organizations tend to very interestingly bridge the divide between advocacy and service NGOs identified in Amanda Murdie’s new book on human security NGOs. The landmines, small arms, anti-nuclear and killer robot networks are comprised of cross-sector/cross-mission coalitions involving service and advocacy, development, environmental, human rights and humanitarian relief organizations and thus constitute one inter-sectional issue area where isolated sub-networks in global civil society are speaking to one another and joining forces. The conditions under which they can turn this inter-sectionality into a resource rather than a curse are unclear. But there are really interesting questions here about how the area of humanitarian disarmament blurs or challenges both conventional modes of action and conventional issue areas in NGO politics and TAN schoalrship.

*BLEG: Please leave cites to recent or forthcoming work fitting this description that I’ve not run across in comments!

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.