No New Information on the Consequences of Nuclear Weapons?

•14 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Adapted and republished from a version published in NPT News in Review.

Stop the MadnessMany diplomatic discussions of nuclear weapons tend toward the dry and mind-numbing—perhaps by design—trying the patience of those who are working for a nuclear free world. However, late in the afternoon on Monday, the debate in Main Committee I of the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) took a turn for the dramatic.

France took the floor and delivered a statement that astounded both in its absurdity and forcefulness, dismissing the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, including the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. “There has been no new information” on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons “in decades,” the French ambassador fumed. Shortly thereafter, the delegate of the Russian Federation mused that those who believe that nuclear disarmament efforts are slowing must be using a “different version of maths”.

As I listened to this, I noticed I had started shaking. This sort of “emotional response” is often disparaged as not belonging in the United Nations, but I think my fear was justified.

France’s claim that there is “no new information” sounds remarkably like what social psychologists would identify as a projection of fault onto others. The claim that there is no new information is actually an admission that they do not listen to new information or wish there was no new information.

Indeed, the French and Russian statements unmask the brutal madness underlying the discourse of nuclear “realism” peddled by nuclear-armed states. It is an assertion that reality is what we with power say it is, not what scientists have observed about it. It recalls the comment made by a Bush administration official in 2002 to a journalist that those who “believe that solutions emerge from … judicious study of discernible reality” are misguided because, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”

The philosopher Hannah Arendt actually saw this attitude, what she called “action-as-propaganda,” as the essence of totalitarianism: claim something blatantly surreal and then force everyone to live in that reality, creating the evidence for your own claim. Say there is no new information; block any attempts to gather new information; then say, “See! There’s no new information!”

Might, apparently, makes right.

Ironically, this view recognizes the possibility that the status quo can change through exercising power. It also perhaps explains the ferocity of France’s rhetoric—they understand the fragility of the status quo and sense the possibility of losing control.

The Austrian ambassador’s response during the debate offered an alternative vision for global policymaking, distinct from unabashed great power strongarming. Listing the voluminous new insights into the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons since the 1980s, he called for an approach to nuclear disarmament based on “human security.” He also suggested that those states that claim there is no new information might have benefited from attending the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna (which France did not).

But at a certain point, he paused uncomfortably and said he was “lost for words”. I empathize. At a certain point when someone makes such a brazen claim of denial, does it make sense to continue to try to state the obvious?

It strikes me that it is actually the silence of the nuclear-dependent states that most enables the ongoing “nuclear consequences denial” of the nuclear-armed states. They remained conspicuously quiet after France’s statement.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that it was seemingly well-intentioned white “moderates” —those who said “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods” —who perpetuated the persistence of racism and segregation. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he said. They provided the veneer of legitimacy and normalcy to an illegitimate system. Dr. King noted that a “gentle” segregationist was still “dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.”

Similarly, eliminating nuclear weapons requires that those states acknowledging the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons but remaining complicit with the nuclear-armed states to break their silence. “Building consensus” around denial would be a consensus of delusion and support a “security” system based on the most inhumane weapons ever built.

For an earlier installment in my “Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse” blog posts, click here.

Unpacking the Claim that Nuclear Weapons Prevent War

•6 May 2015 • Leave a Comment

Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference

Republished from NPT News in Review.

While I have been researching disarmament and arms control for more than a decade, I have largely concentrated on conventional weapons, like landmines, cluster munitions, small arms and military robotics. I am reminded of this when, in conversations with diplomats of nuclear-armed countries in forums like the ongoing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, I am told that nuclear weapons are “different.”  I am politely informed that my experience working on addressing the humanitarian harm of other weapons is thus irrelevant, because as the line often goes, “nuclear weapons are not for using in war, they are for preventing war.”

This is a rather bold claim and is, of course, empirically incorrect: the US used nuclear weapons in war against Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nevertheless the idea that nuclear weapons somehow prevent war is repeated ad nauseam by nuclear technocrats. I’m tired of hearing this cliché, so I would like to call attention to five key problems with its logic:

  1. Nuclear weapons have a poor record of preventing war and/or escalation. India and Pakistan are nuclear armed, but have engaged in numerous clashes. Israel has been attacked several times since obtaining nuclear weapons. And at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal did not prevent Kennedy from calling their bluff in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ward Wilson’s book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons does a particularly good job of showing how “nuclear deterrence failed to restrain leaders from aggression in any number of nuclear crises.”
  2. If nuclear weapons prevent war, why shouldn’t all states have access to them? Let us for a moment assume that nuclear weapons are a magical war-preventing technology. That to me seems like an argument for proliferation. The claim by the nuclear powers that their weapons promote stability seems to be undermined by their strenuous efforts to prevent other states from getting them. If they prevent war, why be afraid of more nuclear weapons in more hands?
  3. The alarming history of nuclear accidents suggests there are no “responsible” holders of nuclear weapons. The most common response to the rhetorical question in point 2 above is that some states are more “responsible” than others and can be trusted to be good stewards over these planet-threatening weapons. However, researchers like Eric Schlosser document a history of hair-raising near misses and close calls. We have only avoided nuclear weapons accidents – and in some cases outright nuclear war – through sheer blind luck. Satirist John Oliver has also exposed just how poorly the United States has managed its nuclear weapons stockpiles.
  4. The foreign policy elite in Nuclear Weapons States have often overestimated their own role (and underestimate that of smaller states and civil society) in preventing nuclear war. There is a tautological logic in deterrence theory – “we didn’t use nuclear weapons during the Cold War because we had nuclear weapons.” But revisiting Cold War history shows that there was tremendous normative pressure on leaders of the nuclear armed states coming from smaller, non-nuclear weapons states, which passed resolutions in the UN General Assembly, worked to establish Nuclear Weapons Free Zones and pushed for the NPT. Civil society also shaped the political landscape in which nuclear armed states’ leaders operated. Demonstrations – at Aldermaston, Greenham Common and Central Park – kept political pressure on elected officials. Intellectual and artistic products shaped public discourse; President Reagan admitted in his diary that watching the 1983 film The Day After, alerted him to the immense dangers of nuclear war.
  5. Saying that nuclear weapons prevent “war” ignores the other forms of widespread harm they have caused. Over the last couple years, the conferences on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna have highlighted the devastating human and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons programs. Nuclear testing and mining for uranium has caused terrible medical problems from people in the Marshall Islands, the Southwestern United States and French Polynesia. The costs of maintaining nuclear weapons draw valuable resources from other government priorities like social programs. If we only think of “war” as the large-scale confrontations of great military powers, we miss the more fine-grained and everyday violence caused by nuclear weapons. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will project has collected the evidence of this humanitarian impact in their report Unspeakable Suffering.

In reflecting on the discussions at the NPT it strikes me that while nuclear weapons are obviously “different” from many conventional weapons in their scale and capacity for devastation, they are also different in the deep mythology and rationalizations that surround them. But we have banned the other weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological weapons) and several particularly harmful conventional weapons too (dum dum bullets, blinding lasers, anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions). Given the potential catastrophic effects of miscalculation, if we are even slightly uncertain about the supposed magical properties of nuclear weapons to prevent war we must ban and eliminate them too.

Posted with minor corrections to the original version in NPT News in Review.

My Statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control at the UN Meeting of Experts on Killer Robots

•29 April 2015 • Leave a Comment

On 17 April, I delivered the closing statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Informal Meeting of Experts at the United Nations in Geneva. This is what I said:

Continue reading ‘My Statement for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control at the UN Meeting of Experts on Killer Robots’

Model United Nations Urges Ban on Killer Robots

•6 April 2015 • Leave a Comment

UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon “energized” by students’ “serious discussions” on autonomous weapons systems

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses National Model UN conference in the General Assembly Room, 26 March 2015. Photo: NMUN.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses National Model UN conference in the General Assembly Room, 26 March 2015. Photo: NMUN.


In less than two weeks, diplomats from around the world will gather at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss potential global regulations on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” that would be able to select and attack targets without direct human control.

But last week, at the National Model UN conference in New York, attended by some 2,500 undergraduate students from all over the world, a simulation of the UN General Assembly passed three resolutions calling for states to take action to prevent the threat of these “killer robots” to security, human rights and humanitarian law.


Reblogged from — to read the whole post, click here.

“We Don’t Do That Anymore” – A Disarmament Ditty

•20 February 2015 • Leave a Comment

If there is one cliché that I am tired of hearing in security and arms control circles, it’s “That’s the way the world works.” This is usually accompanied by condescension and/or mansplaining. But of course, “how the world works” changes all the time. I never thought you could put this ethos of humanitarian disarmament campaigning — things don’t have to be the way they are — to a tune, but The Burning Hell have done it! I present to you: “We Don’t Do That Anymore.”

Now I have all kinds of ideas. Perhaps now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has opened Hamilton (hip hop magic about historical wonkery), he could write us Cluster Bombs: The Musical.

Landmines and Environmental Degradation in War

•12 February 2015 • Leave a Comment

In this a new article written with Doug Weir from the Toxic Weapons of War Project, we examine how the politics of war, the environment and humanitarianism since the 1970s have influenced state and civil society responses to the remnants of war. In doing so we considers how mines and ERW became decoupled from the environment and whether new opportunities are now emerging for a more integrated approach to reducing the risks the legacies of war pose to civilians and environment alike.

Read our article here.

Minefields to Minespace: Tracing the Changes in Remote and Automated Violence from Booby Traps and Landmines to IEDs and Killer Robots

•12 January 2015 • 1 Comment
The US M18A1 Claymore Mine: an artifact of when militaries thought of war as having a simple division between the "Front" and "Rear".

The US M18A1 Claymore Mine: an artifact of a certain military discourse that divides war simply between the “Front” and “Rear”. Trends in contemporary conflict challenge this binary notion.

The academic journal Political Geography has just published my article on the changing ways remote and automated violence has been deployed over the last century. Here is an abstract of the article:

From minefields to minespace: An archeology of the changing architecture of autonomous killing in US Army field manuals on landmines, booby traps and IEDs

Since WWI, militaries and armed groups have used remote and autonomous explosive traps – landmines, booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – as a kind of deadly architecture to reengineer terrain inhospitable. Until recently, minefields remained analog, static, and fixed. But technological development and changes in the nature of war have made remote and autonomous violence increasingly mobile, dynamic, and robotic and, rather than being contained in a bounded Cartesian plane, diffused through the very spaces and flows that sustain civilian life. Such “unmanned” weapons are increasingly able to navigate, communicate with each other, identify targets and even kill with minimal human involvement. Mirroring broader changes in the spatial configurations of war, the architectural form of remote and autonomous killing is thus shifting from the two-dimensional minefield to multi-dimensional minespace. This poses challenges to those engaged in humanitarian efforts to demilitarize space. To illustrate these changes, the paper draws on Derek Gregory’s notion of “Everywhere War” and engages in a discursive “archeology” of the minefield as described by US Army mine, booby trap and IED warfare field manuals.

Gamechanger? Austria Pledges to Seek Global Ban on Nuclear Weapons

•10 December 2014 • Leave a Comment

At an international conference this week on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna, Austria issued a pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” and “cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”

“Anyone in Vienna can tell that something new is happening on nuclear weapons. We have had three conferences examining their humanitarian impact, and now with the Austrian pledge we have everything we need for a diplomatic process to start”, said Thomas Nash of UK NGO Article 36.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a global ban. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commits states to “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.” The lack of progress toward that goal has become increasingly frustrating to the non-nuclear states that make up the majority of the world’s countries. Next year — the 70th anniversary of the A-bomb attacks on Japan —  there will be a major conference in New York reviewing the implementation of the NPT. Many states are looking for a way to get out of the nuclear gridlock.

Over the last few years a potential way forward has emerged from the humanitarian and human rights community, working with a range of small and middle powers. At conferences in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna, states have begun talking about the potential humanitarian and environmental risks and impacts of nuclear weapons and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has catalyzed civil society momentum. Rather than waiting for the nuclear powers to disarm themselves, this has shifted the impetus for action to non-nuclear states and civil society. There is a growing realization that, like the processes on landmines and cluster munitions, they can move forward with stigmatizing nuclear weapons without the buy-in of those states that own them. We don’t usually wait from those who are the problem to ban their own behavior, so why would we wait for nuclear armed states to do so.

The emerging proposal is a prohibition on the use, stockpiling, development and transfer of nuclear weapons, as outlined in a recent report by Article 36 and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Reaching Critical Will project. At the Vienna conference, 44 states called for such a prohibition and the “Austria Pledge” essentially called for the establishment of a negotiating process.

Nuclear weapons represent an existential threat to the globe. They are a threat to fundamental right to life. They distort our social systems, taking much-needed fiscal resources from health, education and other life-giving priorities. They entrench an international system that unjustly favors the great powers. They are an anomaly — the only WMD that is still not prohibited. They are impossible to use without violating humanitarian law. It’s time to ban nuclear weapons.

To learn how you can get involved in this effort to make the world a safer, more just and peaceful place, visit the website of ICAN.

Progress on Landmines in 2014

•10 December 2014 • Leave a Comment

The new Landmine Monitor* report has recorded “the lowest number of new casualties ever and the completion of clearance obligations in four states.” In other good news, Oman acceded to the treaty in August 2014 and the US made a significant policy shift that brings into closer alignment with the global consensus. In fact, this week US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the international community to “Clear land mines off the earth” in an editorial for USA Today:

That means the U.S. will no longer procure anti-personnel land mines, and we will begin destroying our anti-personnel land mine stockpiles not required for the defense of South Korea. And we will work to find ways that may ultimately allow us to accede to the Ottawa Convention — the international treaty that prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel land mines.

However, in patting ourselves on the back we must not pretend that there is not tremendous amount of work still to be done. The Landmine Monitor report also decries the slow progress in landmine clearance and declining funding for humanitarian mine action.

For background clearing landmines and US landmine policy, read my book, Foreign Aid and Landmine Clearance.

*Full disclosure: I did the research for the landmine clearance portions of the Bosnia and Croatia sections of the 2014 Landmine Monitor report.

Killer Robots Remain on UN Agenda

•14 November 2014 • Leave a Comment

At a meeting of the  Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the UN in Geneva, states agreed to keep autonomous weapons systems — “killer robots” — on the agenda for the coming year.

States mandated a five day informal Meeting of Experts for 13-17 April 2015. This isn’t exactly what activists associated with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots wanted; they had asked for a much longer, more formal meeting. The CCW’s rules of procedure require all decisions to be made by consensus, which means that the discussion is held back by states who benefit from dawdling while busily investing in research and development. As Human Rights Watch put it, “greater urgency is needed to address the threat these weapons pose.”

But this decision gives campaigners another possibility to push the international community to adopt a prohibition on these weapons that fail to maintain “meaningful human control” over individual attacks.

“The broad consensus expressed for continuing the talks shows it is clear that ‘doing nothing’ in the face of ever-greater autonomy in warfare is not an option,” said the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

For the statement of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (a group of concerned scholars) — at the CCW, click here. For the CCW’s final report, click here.