Using the Arms Trade Treaty to Save Rhinos While Protecting Human Rights

•15 December 2016 • Leave a Comment

The Forum on the Arms Trade just published a blog I wrote about the relevance of the Arms Trade Treaty for addressing wildlife poaching. Read it here.

Examining the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons

•9 August 2016 • Leave a Comment

I am happy to announce that the academic journal Global Policy has published a Special Section on nuclear disarmament, focusing on the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons. As states meet in Geneva this week for the UN Open-Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament, it is inspiring to see how much the Humanitarian Initiative has created new openings for stigmatizing and prohibiting nuclear weapons. I include below the abstracts of  and links to the articles, written by scholars and practitioners involved in the effort to change the way we think about nuclear weapons, from instruments of security to a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the making.

1) The Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons: An Introduction to Global Policy’s Special Section

By Matthew Bolton and Elizabeth Minor

The dominant paradigm of international relations theory has long seen influence over nuclear arsenals as the preserve of presidents, premiers and generals of the world’s great powers, not underfunded activists, feminist campaigners, radical nuns or even diplomats of small states. The approach of this special section could not be more different. In fact, we have intentionally curated a collection of articles that try to ‘de-center’ the academic conversation about nuclear weapons. The inspiration for our approach comes from the Humanitarian Initiative on Nuclear Weapons, which since its emergence after the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has dramatically reshaped the diplomatic discussions on nuclear disarmament, led by small states and middle powers. The shift in discourse has been accelerated by revitalized civil society action, represented by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a global NGO coalition, as well as renewed calls for disarmament from religious leaders – most notably Pope Francis. This special section, written from the perspective of scholars and practitioners associated with the Humanitarian Initiative, examines its dimensions and its potential impact on global policy making.

2) The Discursive Turn Arrives in Turtle Bay: The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ Operationalization of Critical IR Theories

By Matthew Bolton and Elizabeth Minor

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has aimed to reenergize global civil society activism on nuclear weapons through a discursive strategy, borrowing self-consciously from critical and post-positivist international relations (IR) theories. ICAN aims to generate a new disarmament discourse that establishes nuclear weapons as inherently inhumane. Alongside the state-led Humanitarian Initiative, ICAN campaigners are helping to reshape the conversation at certain international meetings on nuclear weapons. They have helped to contest the dominance of national security narratives and force even the nuclear-armed states to address the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. In supporting a reframing of the conversation, they have opened nuclear disarmament policy making to new voices. However, as with the transmission of many ideas from one arena to another – in this case from academia to global policy making forums – there is a translation process as ICAN campaigners selectively adopt from post-positivist IR to meet their political goals. It is possible that this translation of critical theorizing into the setting of multilateral forums has necessitated reducing the potency of the disruptive critique of the original ideas.

3) The Theological Landscape of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: the Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches and the Bomb

By Emily Welty

Can religion bring something distinct, critical and useful to global politics? Or do the voices of religious actors mimic those of secular NGOs when given opportunities to speak truth to power in international diplomacy? This article examines these questions through the lens of nuclear disarmament, considering the role of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. While faith communities have had a potent role in pushing for nuclear disarmament, the article argues that much more can be done by religious actors to argue that nuclear weapons are a stain on the moral conscience of people of faith.

4) Foregrounding Justice in Nuclear Disarmament: A Practitioner Commentary

By Ray Acheson

Injustice and inequity are fundamental to the possession of nuclear weapons. But these concepts have not been at the forefront of mainstream discourse surrounding these weapons, which has instead focused on concepts of ‘deterrence’, ‘strategic stability’, and ‘national security’. The Humanitarian Initiative (see the introductory essay in this Special Section for background) recaptures ground in terms of how nuclear weapons are discussed and perceived internationally. The reemergence of a focus on the physical effects of a nuclear weapon detonation has initiated a process of stigmatising these weapons. But this changing discourse, in order to effectively lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons, also requires the recognition that nuclear weapons represent an elite threat of terror and perpetuate inequity between countries, with broader implications for humanity.  Arguments about injustice help unmask additional aspects of the unacceptability of nuclear weapons. Within this broader critique, gender analysis is crucial, helping to illuminate and challenge structures of power that sustain nuclear weapons. This is not a theoretical exercise. It has practical implications for pursuing the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. A gender perspective challenges governments and people to act on moral, ethical, humanitarian, legal, political, and economic grounds without waiting for those benefiting from the status quo.

5) Non-Nuclear Weapons States Must Lead in Shaping International Norms on Nuclear Weapons: A Practitioner Commentary

By Maritza Chan

Nuclear weapons States continue to defy their responsibilities for achieving nuclear, as well as general and complete, disarmament while they simultaneously hold non-nuclear States to their non-proliferation commitments. Costa Rica is part of that non-nuclear armed majority. We take a firm stand that the lack of legal prohibition of nuclear weapons constitutes a legal anomaly among weapons of mass destruction. As such, Costa Rica is committed to encouraging negotiations towards a treaty establishing new legal obligations to ban nuclear weapons once and for all. The time has come for a new era of nuclear politics in which the non-nuclear majority of States can lead the way in charting the course towards a non-nuclear world.

Stop Fueling Saudi Arabia’s Bombardment of Yemeni Civilians

•13 March 2016 • Leave a Comment



Saudi Arabia’s devastating aerial bombardment of Yemen is being supplied by arms manufacturers from around the world. On February 28, European Parliament called for an embargo. In reaction, experts from the Forum on the Arms Trade offered their analysis of the situation. Here is what I said:


This is a test case to see how seriously European countries will take their new obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty to ensure that weapons are not transferred to states engaged in violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. While the US has not yet ratified the Treaty, as a signatory the US should support vigorous implementation of the Treaty’s provisions, which actually accord with US export controls. In Presidential Policy Directive 27, US arms export regulations also require the government to assess ‘the likelihood that the recipient would use the arms to commit human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law.’ Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of populated areas in Yemen surely disqualifies it from further arms deliveries, whether from the US, the EU or any other supplier.

For reactions from the Forum’s many other experts, click here.

Technologies that will alter our world in 2016

•13 March 2016 • Leave a Comment

I contributed a short piece on “killer robots” at the beginning of the year for an online forum convened by OpenCanada on “technologies that will alter our world”:

While we are becoming increasingly used to the idea of remotely operated robotic weapons — drones — they are only one manifestation of a broader digitization of warfare. Human rights advocates, humanitarians and even many military personnel are concerned that the growing autonomy of new weapons will soon take people completely “out of the loop” of decision making about killing. This might sound like science fiction (articles in the new media compulsively reference the film Terminator), but such “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems” (LAWS), or less euphemistically, “Killer Robots,” are a not-too-distant future.

To read the whole article, click here.

New article – “Go get a job right after you take a bath”: Occupy Wall Street as Matter Out of Place

•13 March 2016 • Leave a Comment

Featured Image -- 1190

From my co-author — Alex Jeffrey — of a new article on the spatial politics of protest, policing and disaster response in New York City.


Bolton, M., S. Froese, and A. Jeffrey (2016). ““Go get a job right after you take a bath”: Occupy Wall Street as Matter Out of Place.” Antipode, DOI: 10.1111/anti.12226

I’m pleased to say that a new article co-written with political scientist Matthew Bolton and architect Stephen Froese has just been published on line by the journal Antipode. The paper interrogates the ways in which urban protest (in this case Occupy Wall Street) is equated with dirt and impurity, or ‘matter out of place’ in Mary Douglas’s classic interpretation.The paper’s title comes from an admonishment to the protesters made by Newt Gingrich, readily fusing dirt with indolence (and conversely purity with productivity). But the focus of the paper moves beyond a deconstruction of official interpretations of the Occupy movement to explore how interpretations of dirt went on to shape the organisation and subsequent actions of the protesters, both within and beyond the…

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New Report on Controlling Flow of Arms to Wildlife Poachers

•13 March 2016 • Leave a Comment
Orphaned elephants receive care at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

Orphaned elephants receive care at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

This fall I published a policy brief with Control Arms, which explores the potential for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to be applied to curb the supply of weapons to wildlife poaching and trafficking networks in East Africa. There is a disturbing trend of militarization in anti-poaching efforts that threatens to exacerbate conflict by increasing arms flows to already destabilized contexts, marginalizing local capacities for peacebuilding and sustainable development. This paper advocates for a human security and sustainable development-centered approach to wildlife crime, while taking care not to formulate generalizations of the many complex contexts of wildlife poaching in East Africa. While there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions, it argues that the ATT can be used by East African (and arms exporting) States as one of many tools to strengthen rule of law, encourage respect for human rights in countering wildlife crime, curb the proliferation of weapons to poachers, monitor trafficking networks and empower local civil society advocacy for peace and environmental sustainability.

It ends with recommendations that East African States accede to the ATT, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and and establish systems for its effective implementation, in coordination with other relevant international instruments (such as the Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) and the Conventions on Transnational Organized Crime and Corruption). In particular, States should enact measures to safeguard against the risk of certain kinds of shipments of arms, ammunition and relevant parts and components – such as high-calibre hunting rifles (and associated ammunition) and silencers – being used by or diverted to wildlife poaching and trafficking networks. Regional civil society civil society and media should consider ways to encourage governments to use the ATT to engage in monitoring and advocacy on wildlife crime, calling the attention of civil society in arms exporting States to the use of weapons in poaching. Finally, it calls on the UN General Assembly and ECOSOC to make reference to the ATT in any future resolutions regarding the poaching and/or the illicit trade in wildlife and references to poaching in ATT resolutions. States should also consider potential linkages to the UN Environment Assembly and ongoing debates on conflict and the environment in the International Law Commission.

To read the full report, click here.

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament Has Always Depended on Non-Nuclear-Armed States and Civil Society

•25 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

This is the final piece in my series onDeconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference”. It is republished from NPT News in Review. The previous two posts pointed out the problems with the claim that nuclear weapons prevent war and the considered the politics of nuclear weapons states’ denial of humanitarian consequences.

Over the last month at the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference we have heard too many times that progress on disarmament “relies on engagement with the nuclear weapons states.” This usually comes from nuclear-dependent states, such as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia, which are not officially nuclear-armed but have military doctrines that rely on US capabilities. Some even store US nuclear weapons on their soil.

But this conventional wisdom is lazy, lacks courage, and misrepresents the history of normative progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. It is beholden to the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the USA, Russia, China, UK, and France. It is an argument for the status quo, in which, as Costa Rica put it on Monday, 18 May, nuclear-armed states “pat themselves on the back” for their meager and slowing limitations on arsenals. Indeed the outcome of the NPT RevCon—with consensus on the outcome text blocked by nucleararmed states but 107 non-nuclear states backing a call for nuclear weapon prohibition and elimination—shows where the momentum for progress lies.

In reviewing the history of nuclear weapons, the major moments of change occurred when those at the “fringes”—small states, middle powers, humanitarian agencies, human rights advocates, faith leaders and religious organizations, activists, intellectuals, and artists—spoke out, withdrew their consent, or moved forward on their own.

Many justifiably point to US President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 UN speech as a game-changer in the discourse about nuclear weapons, clearing stating that they “must be abolished before they abolish us.” But what is often overlooked is how much political pressure the US and Soviet foreign policy elite were under in the 1950s to end the debilitating terror of nuclear weapons.

Religious institutions like the Vatican and World Council of Churches issued strong condemnation of nuclear weapons. The 1955 “Manifesto” by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell signed by prominent intellectuals around the globe called for an “agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments” and led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. This was accompanied by a groundswell of social discontent, such as the Aldermaston Marches and the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—with its famous “peace sign” logo—in the late 1950s.

The momentum for nuclear disarmament was dissipated by the complete breakdown in trust between the superpowers during the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it is worth remembering that Kennedy held back from escalating the crisis because the worldview of his civilian advisors had developed outside of military structures. The pressure to avoid nuclear war from civil society had been transmitted to the White House and ultimately prevailed.

Frustrated and frightened by an arms race that threatened the whole of human existence, during the 1960s small states and middle powers decided that they could not wait for the superpowers to halt their destructive spiral. Just a month after the height of the confrontation over Cuba, the UN General Assembly (where smaller states have a majority) passed resolution 1909 calling for “a convention on the prohibition of the use of nuclear and thermos-nuclear weapons.”

The Latin American and Caribbean states went even further by innovating the first nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) —the Treaty of Tlatetlolco—in 1967. Since then, the majority of states are now members of NWFZ treaties. Several small states, particularly Ireland, played an instrumental role in getting the two superpowers and nuclear armed states to commit to the NPT, including the article VI obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.”

Traditional theories of international relations—focused as they are on the distribution of bombs and tanks rather than the role of symbols and idea—has also often underestimated the effect that the arts have on shaping the thinking of policymakers. “Dr. Strangelove” did more perhaps than any UN panel or politician’s speech to undermine the faulty logic of “mutually assured destruction.” And President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film “The Day After” alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.

Such artistic products both drew from and inspired further unprecedented levels of protest in the 1980s, including the Plowshares actions, Greenham Common occupation, and the million people who gathered in Central Park in 1982.

In the last five years we have seen the increasing coordination between disparate groups traditionally marginalized from global policymaking on security. The launch in 2007 of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) brought new public attention to nuclear disarmament and galvanized a new generation of politically savvy activists.

ICAN has been particularly effective at organizing in coalitions with middle powers and small states, resulting in the three conferences on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. This modelled a refreshingly different way of talking about nuclear weapons, putting victims and survivors (both past and future) and the human impact—rather than outmoded notions of “deterrence”—at the center of the conversation.

And this is not just talk. There is now new impetus for action, symbolized by the Humanitarian Pledge— signed by 107 states so far—to “fill the legal gap” in order “to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

The late international relations theorist and nuclear weapons apologist Professor Kenneth Waltz once scoffed that it would be “ridiculous to construct a theory of international politics based on Malaysia and Costa Rica.” He believed that if you wanted to understand the way the world works you only needed to pay attention to the great military powers.

But, as Costa Rica pointed out in a side event this week, the emerging field of humanitarian disarmament has shown just how blinkered this supposedly “realist” view is. Antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions were banned through a disciplined and tightly coordinated coalition of civil society, middle powers, and smaller states. Even though some of the major military powers have failed to sign these treaties, they have largely accepted the new norms.

Costa Rica and Malaysia are both members of the Humanitarian Pledge. They are precisely the countries to pay attention to if you want to construct a new, more humane, theory of international politics. Looking to the supposed margins—small states, activists, advocates, humanitarians, intellectuals, and artists—we can envision theory that instead of cultivating passivity ushers in a world free of nuclear weapons.