Tag: international norms (Page 2 of 2)

Depleted Uranium Munitions: Emerging Norm, or Propagandist Overreach?

Arab states’ accusation that Israel used depleted uranium weapons in its recent attacks against Gaza, and Israel’s denial of this, raise an interesting question: is a customary norm against the use of depleted munitions* emerging? As scholars studying norm emergence, how would we know?

As far as I can ascertain it would not be illegal for Israel to have used such weapons, since there is no ban on DPU in international law, and since the suspected qualities of the weapons that would render them illegal if proven (widespread environmental damage and uncontrollable negative effects on civilians) have not been shown conclusively. Indeed, neither most governments nor leading human rights and humanitarian law organizations have concluded the DPU is a violation of humanitarian law. The ICRC has not commented on the issue since 2001, when a press release stated:

“Currently available scientific information provides evidence that the increase in levels of uranium is marginal in areas where depleted uranium munitions have been used, except at the points of impact of depleted uranium penetrators.”

So this is not an issue around which mainstream human rights organizations are actively mobilizing.

A growing opposition to the use of DPU is clearly emerging in public opinion, however. A widespread transnational network of activists has emerged promoting a global ban on depleted uranium munitions, drawing members from the anti-war community, veterans groups, feminist peace groups, environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and local NGOs in war-torn countries where DPU weapons have been deployed. This network of groups has lobbied the UN, EU and various member states to ban the use of such weapons. Some meager results so far: Belgium initiated a moratorium; and the UN First Committee has issued a resolution expressing concern over the possible health effects of DPU and encouraging the Secretary General and several specialized agencies to look into it.

None of this renders DPU illegal, and without a clear position on the issue by organizations such as the ICRC and Human Rights Watch, it is hard to imagine that momentum will develop to formally codify a ban against these munitions. If I read the tea leaves correctly there is not widespread support among humanitarian law mainstream for taking such a position in favor of a ban along the lines of landmines or cluster munitions.

This makes it that much more interesting, in my mind, that the use DPU is now being routinely cited by governments eager to accuse one another of misconduct, despite its current legality. Even more interesting is the compulsion to deny their use. Does this mean a norm against the weapons is emerging even in the absence of a formal treaty process? Or are there other ways to interpret this discourse?

*Depleted uranium is a by-product of nuclear enrichment processes increasingly used in armor-piercing incendiary projectiles to penetrate tanks, bunkers and personnel carriers; and by corollary, to harden tank armour against anti-material weapons. Its military utility is said to come from its particular density: depleted uranium munitions are both cheaper and more effective at penetrating armor than tungsten, the alternative. DPU has been used by the United States and Britain since approximately 1960 and is increasingly sought after by other militaries: China, France, Russia and Pakistan are among the countries now known to include DPU rounds in their arsenals. Whether Israel does or not is uncertain.

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Introduction to constructivist IR theory: a video lecture

Having uploaded my quick-and-dirty video APSA presentation, I thought I might also upload some other movies I’ve made over the years relating to international-relations theory and topics. The four-part series showcased below is an extended video supplement I did for “Introduction to International Politics.” I’ve used the same lecture, more or less, ever since. If anyone cares, the content comes after one I posted a long time ago on typifications and social facts.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4

FYI, the images are all credited at the end.

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Human Rights Watch Takes Aim at Russia and Pot-Shots at the U.S. Over Cluster Munitions

Human Rights Watch is reporting evidence that Russia used cluster munitions in populated areas of Georgia, and has traced at least 11 civilian deaths to the weapons, which are considered indiscriminate under international law.

“Russian aircraft dropped RBK-250 cluster bombs, each containing 30 PTAB 2.5M submunitions, on the town of Ruisi in the Kareli district of Georgia on August 12, 2008. Three civilians were killed and five wounded in the attack. On the same day, a cluster strike in the center of the town of Gori killed at least eight civilians and injured dozens, Human Rights Watch said. Dutch journalist Stan Storimans was among the dead. Israeli journalist Zadok Yehezkeli was seriously wounded and evacuated to Israel for treatment after surgery in Tbilisi. An armored vehicle from the Reuters news agency was perforated with shrapnel from the attack.

What interests me about this press release is that HRW’s condemnation of Russia focuses not on the Geneva Conventions, but on the emerging ban on cluster munitions. This is a puzzle since Russia is in violation of the former but not the latter.

Let me explain:

Russia’s is not in violation of said Convention on Cluster Munitions, because

a) the treaty is not yet in force and won’t be until six months after the 30th nation ratifies it (it doesn’t officially open for signature until later this year) and

b) even if it were in force, Russia is not and does not intend to become a party to the treaty.

Nonetheless, Russia’s use of cluster munitions is in violation of the 1977 Additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which Russia is a party. These treaties prohibit indiscriminate force (that is, the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians); but more importantly, they prohibit the use of any weapons that by their nature cannot be used discriminately or controlled. It is the last part that pertains to cluster munitions and accounts for the increasing opprobrium attached to them: once launched, unexploded bomblets remain deadly even after deployment and, much like anti-personnel mines, pose an ongoing risk to civilians. This alone makes their use inconsistent with humanitairan law. This is not the same, though, as using them indiscriminately (cluster munitions can be deployed against military objectives) and it is not the same as using them to intentionally attack civilians.

Governments increasingly acknowledge that cluster munitions are indiscriminate because they can’t be controlled, and over 100 of them drafted the afore-mentioned treaty banning cluster munitions entirely in Dublin this year. Like other treaties, this only binds states who sign on. However, as with other weapons bans, human rights groups hope that the existence of the treaty itself will promote a more general norm against the use of these weapons that, irrespective of states’ legal obligations, will curtail their use in the future. The “stigmatizing” effects of multilateral treaties even on non-signatories is thought to be especially important since the United States, China and Israel have also refused to sign on to this new agreement but might conceivably be influenced by the fact that others have.

In short, HRW’s press release does not address Russia’s actual obligations under international law, but rather aims to promote an emerging norm against cluster munitions more generally. If they wanted to shame Russia, or to contribute to legal cases being developed against Russia in various international courts, they would refer to the Geneva Conventions (the term never appears in the press release).

Instead, this press release can be interpreted as a norm-building exercise – an effort to invoke the new treaty as an international norm binding all “civilized” countries. In so doing, HRW’s aim is as much to embarrass and persuade the United States, Georgia and other non-signatories as it is to condemn Russia.

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Global Norm Decline? Maybe Not.

Anthony Clark Arend at Georgetown University is blogging about Israel’s threat to bomb Iranian nuclear reactors if they do not desist. He worries that this latest brinkmanship is more evidence of a decline in the non-aggression norm, since the situation would not meet the criteria for preemptive self-defense against an imminent attack laid out in the UN Charter as an exception to the non-aggression rule:

If imminence is not the standard for using force anticipatorily, then what is? The mere fact that the other state is building a nuclear reactor? The fact that the other state is building a reactor and is hostile toward a particular state? The fact that the other state has a history of aggression? The problem is obvious. As fuzzy as the imminence criterion may be, if that criterion is relaxed, it is unclear what will replace it. And so, the door will be opened for more and more bogus claims of “legitimate self-defense.”

In other words, we’ll be back to plain old balance of power politics, a bad recipe in a nuclear armed world.

Arend’s discussion of the law on preemptive self-defense, and how it differs from the Bush doctrine, is extremely illuminating. I think he may be overestimating the damage being done to the norm itself here, however (much like those arguments I’ve heard that Guantanamo Bay “threatens the entire Geneva regime.”) I would say that in terms of norm decline, what matters is not what states like Israel or the US do, but how the international community reacts, since as Fredrich Kratockwil and John Ruggie long ago argued, “norms are counterfactually valid.”

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Think Harder, Professor Ratner

Steven Ratner has written a “Think Again” piece on the Geneva Conventions in the new issue of Foreign Policy. (This explains why FP rejected my proposal for a Think Again piece on the same topic about three months ago.)

Ratner’s list of assumptions that should be rethought include:

“The Geneva Conventions are Obsolete”
“The Geneva Conventions Don’t Apply to Al-Qaeda”
“The Geneva Conventions Turn Soldiers Into War Criminals”
“The Geneva Conventions Prevent the Interrogations of Terrorists”
“The Geneva Conventions Ban Asassinations”
“The Geneva Conventions Require Closing Guantanamo”
“No Nation Flouts the Geneva Conventions More than the US”

A couple of other questionable assumptions mentioned in my original proposal might be added to Ratner’s list:

1) “The Geneva Conventions reflect international consensus on how to weigh humanitarian concerns against national security interests.” Not really. International consensus is now far more progressive than the original treaties. Part of why the Bush Administration gets away with so much is that a huge gap exists between current norms and the outdated letter of the law.

2) “The Geneva Conventions represent timeless principles.” No. Treaties are historical constructs that can be and are often amended as needed. Serious gaps in the law are widely acknowledged: the lack of accountability for private security forces and non-state belligerents, the ambiguity about detainee status determinations, among others. My view: these should be addressed through the negotiation of a new Additional Protocol.

Ratner also reifies some rather unsubstantiated assumptions himself. Let me focus on one: the argument that the US should comply with Geneva because if we don’t we undermine the conventions themselves:

“It is enormously important that the US reaffirms its commitment to the conventions, for the sake of the country’s reputation and that of the conventions… in losing sight of the crucial protections of the conventions, the US invites a world of war in which laws disappear.”

I’ve heard this a few times before, but I’m not sure I buy it. The argument is that US noncompliance with Geneva will affect the rest of the international community’s shared understanding of the rules and norms.

But isn’t it possible that US exceptionalism stands an equal chance of galvanizing pro-Geneva sentiment instead? Certainly this was the case with the International Criminal Court. The US opposes the Rome Treaty and has used several mechanisms including domestic legislation and bilateral treaties to make attempt to undermine the court. Yet in some ways this has only seemed to strengthen the rest of the world’s commitment to the ICC, and it’s the legitimacy of the US in matters of humanitarian affairs that has been undermined. Similarly, 80+ countries are moving ahead with a ban on cluster munitions, shrugging their shoulders at the US which isn’t interested.

I think that arguments that US behavior risks undermining regime norms, which are principled rules shared by the entire international community, reflects a certain arrogance. We never assumed that Milosevic’s use of concentration camps “undermined the POW rules,” only that it represented a violation of those rules to be condemned and punished. In fact, the international response reaffirmed the rules, just as international condemnation of US practice is now doing.

Of course you might argue that the US has disproportionate influence on regime norms because of its soft power. But I would suppose it’s US soft power that is being undermined here, not international norms.

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Terrorism, the shopping mall, and global gun norms


Remember the threat terrorism was supposed to pose to shopping malls? Actually, some of these warnings are quite recent.

For years, some have feared that terrorists might go into shopping malls and start killing innocent shoppers or service employees. Often, the warnings are associated with popular holidays like Halloween or Christmas.

Here’s how Michelle Malkin might handle the latest developments in Omaha — if she worried about the ready availability of handguns, assault rifles and other terrifying weapons in the US:

Reports are, of course, quick to stress that accused jihadi Shareef [killer Robert Hawkins] allegedly acted as a “lone wolf.”

He is not alone.

“Lone wolves” who believe in violent jihad [pathways to celebrity] add up.

Sadly, the U.S. leads the industrialized world in death by gun violence.

The narrative from yesterday is all too familiar. A distressed individual snaps, perhaps triggered by loss of a job or personal relationship, shoots a bunch of innocent people in a public place, and then kills himself (the shooter is typically male).

Most of the IR bloggers at the Duck are interested in the development and diffusion of international norms that affect the behavior of states.

Sometimes, I wonder why the U.S. is not more like the rest of the industrialized world — embracing universal health care, gun control, longer vacations, and other progressive ideas.

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