Disarmament Insight


Monday, 30 April 2007

How do you teach a Canadian to be rational?

Actually, this blog posting's title isn’t the first line of a joke (apologies to any Canadians out there already reaching for their poison pens). Rather, it’s a reference to an interesting lecture delivered by Thomas C. Schelling, a recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and transmitted on Ontario TV (OTV)’s “Big Ideas” program.

Schelling is less a man than an institution in the domain of rational choice theory. And, unlike a lot of theorists, he’s had extensive experience over his long life in many fields including government, industry and in making government policy. He’s also written many books, but the one that’s perhaps influenced me the most is “Micromotives and Macrobehavior”, which I’d recommend as background to anyone interested in understanding obstacles to making individual and collective decisions.

“Micromotives and Macrobehaviour” can be involved in places, so an easier way to become familiar with rational choice theory is to listen to Schelling's TVO audio talk (see reference below).

In his talk, Schelling pointed out that while people act rationally much of the time (or at least think they do) it’s worth looking at situations in which they’re not rational, and to explore why. To illustrate the value of this, Schelling used the analogy of the magnetic compass: in most contexts it’s an excellent navigational tool because it always points to magnetic north. But if you’re close to the North Pole it’ll point southeast, which is something that’s important to know. If you don’t it could lead to mishap.

Schelling also observed that social arrangements are sometimes good for helping to “do the right thing” – that is, benefiting us in the long run. Years before, as a new analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Schelling said he was puzzled by the fact that lunchtime joggers there always ran in packs of several people. It turned out that people quit after a while if they jog alone. Undertaking something in cooperation with other people, then, can sometimes help us be rational utility maximizers.

Schelling’s talk was about lots of other things besides, outlining several different ways in which apparently rational people can make irrational decisions. But his jogging story got me wondering about what happens when the group of joggers grows too big. When going running at lunchtime with some friends there’s usually a bit of positive peer pressure to turn up, and some healthy competition to keep running even when stitch or apathy set in.

Make the group too large, though, and one would expect to see increasing free rider behaviour. Who’s really going to notice whether you turn up if you’re only going to be one runner in 30, or one in 100? Why encourage and pace others if you think you’ll look better by racing ahead? Indeed, why run those hard yards at all if you don’t feel under much pressure among a group of near-strangers? Far from being good for “doing the right thing”, large-scale social arrangements might even encourage the opposite.

These sorts of concerns emerge in international relations too (something about which Schelling is, of course, well aware). Arrangements like political institutions, treaties and coalitions are sometimes good at enabling actors to maximize their rational interests, assuming that they have identified those interests. But they aren’t always if they grow too large – a dilemma that emerges in the context of NATO, for instance, or the European Union or Conference on Disarmament.

Care needs to be taken that multilateral arrangements help rather than hinder the identification and pursuit of interests collectively that might just be too hard to do alone. Smaller-scale arrangements in which those involved can spur each other on may sometimes achieve better results than the anonymous crowd of the marathon. It’s both an opportunity and a risk that others will notice and want to join the group: a large coalition isn’t always best, even if in the long run you'd like everyone to be a runner.

John Borrie


Thomas Schelling’s 45 minute audio lecture can be found by visiting the TVO website (http://www.tvo.org), selecting “Big Ideas” from programs A-Z, and then selecting the past episodes page. It’s also possible to subscribe to “Big Ideas” pod casts for free through the iTunes Music Store pod cast directory.

I discussed Schelling and inefficient equilibriums in my chapter entitled “Cooperation and Defection in the Conference on Disarmament”, which can be downloaded by clicking on the pink book ("Thinking Outside the Box...") at the left of this column.

See also Thomas C. Schelling, “Micromotives and Macrobehaviour”, (New York/London, Norton, 1978).

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions

Last week I went to the Eden Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, to attend a Meeting of Experts organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to evaluate military, technical, legal and humanitarian aspects of the use of cluster munitions.

What is a cluster munition, and what’s the problem? While there’s no universally accepted definition, it’s generally accepted that a cluster munition is a container or dispenser from which explosive submunitions (also called bomblets) are scattered. These submunitions are the dangerous parts of a cluster munition because they explode on impact or after time-delay and cause damage through blast and fragmentation – cumulatively over a wide area.

International concern about the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions has grown, especially following their use in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Kosovo and, most recently, in the Lebanon conflict in summer 2006, both in terms of how responsibly these weapons are targeted (experience has shown they're prone to indiscriminate use) and the hazards cluster submunitions pose as unexploded ordnance.

All unexploded ordnance is hazardous, but a growing body of research shows explosive submunitions are particularly nasty for civilians in the conflicts in which they’ve been used. They're usually small (often the size of a D-cell battery), unlike anti-personnel mines they're designed to kill rather than maim, and are often of an appearance that's attractive to children to pick up and play with. And they're used in very large numbers: an estimated 4 million submunitions in last summer's Lebanon conflict, for instance, of which up to 1 million may have failed to function as intended and so have posed continuing risk to people.

Unless something is done about explosive submunitions, this use - and their deadly hazard to civilians - will likely grow, especially as they continue to proliferate. But as might be expected, views among the 90 invited participants from governments (both user and affected states), international organizations and key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participating in the 3-day meeting varied about what to do.

I don’t want to comment on these in detail here because views expressed weren’t directly attributable, and the ICRC will release a summary report of discussions in a few weeks anyway. Suffice to say, some countries would prefer to keep work in the traditional forum for this kind of thing, the rather technical UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) process, or at least to give it one more chance when it meets later this year, rather than through a free-standing humanitarian negotiation.

Nevertheless, something in every participant’s mind was that in February 2007 more than 45 countries announced the Oslo Declaration, which commits them to negotiate a new international treaty before the end of 2008 to address cluster munitions causing unacceptable harm to civilians.

One point confirmed for me at Montreux was that technical solutions of the kind to which the CCW is accustomed for weapons aren’t going to be enough in dealing with all aspects of the hazards for civilians that cluster munitions pose. It’s also likely to require restriction or prohibition of at least some kinds of explosive submunitions.

Some in the CCW, which follows consensus practice, are loath to agree to develop such measures. Certain big military powers like the United States, Russia and China currently oppose even the idea of new humanitarian law on cluster munitions, even while they admit the weapon causes humanitarian problems. It makes a robust treaty outcome in the CCW hard to envisage.

States opposed to an Oslo treaty process claim, in effect, that any work outside the CCW risks burning it to the ground. But I don’t buy it. The CCW has real value in ensuring risks for civilians in conflict are minimized through its other protocols, whether or not new rules on cluster munitions are negotiated there.

And, historically, the CCW was actually most productive in the few years after agreement of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (negotiated outside it), when CCW members settled their differences in order to ensure it remained contemporary and credible. An outside treaty, addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions in a way the CCW can’t, could actually be a very good thing in again compelling it to re-invigorate itself.

The mantra among diplomats is that the Oslo process and the CCW are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It's true, and they should remind themselves of this as the road leads toward Lima in Peru, where Oslo process countries will next meet in late May, and then on to Vienna in December.

John Borrie


The ICRC expects to have its summary report of the Montreux meeting available in early June. It can be downloaded from the ICRC website (www.icrc.org).

For an introduction to the issues, see John Borrie & Rosy Cave, “The humanitarian effects of cluster munitions: why should we worry?” in Disarmament Forum (four, 2006), p. 5-14 at http://www.unidir.ch/html/en/disarmament_forum.php.

Photo courtesy of R. Coupland.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Getting a Grip on Arms Transfers

Recently, and within the space of a couple of weeks, I travelled to Japan and to Canada to participate in conferences devoted to finding ways to prevent small arms and light weapons from being transferred into regions, countries and hands where they could be used to commit human rights violations, war crimes or genocide; or to topple a country or region into armed conflict. Although the deliberations took place at opposite ends of the world, the conclusions were remarkably similar - States need to take much more seriously their existing obligations under international law to transfer arms responsibly.

Every State, of course, has the right to defend itself. The UN Charter recognises this. For most States, this necessitates acquiring arms, either through production or import. The arms trade is a legitimate activity that allows States to meet their security needs. But when a State turns its weapons against its own people, or in aggression against its neighbours, the suppliers of those weapons must share the blame if such actions were part of a pattern of past abuses or were otherwise foreseeable.

But why, you might ask, is it necessary to do anything at all about this if States already have obligations under international law that require them not to transfer arms to recipients that are likely to misuse them? It is true that States have many obligations under international human rights- and humanitarian law, as well as under arms embargoes agreed by the UN Security Council, to transfer arms in a responsible manner. In an ideal world, this would be enough. But in reality, existing obligations are often flouted (see the April 17 New York Times article on arms transfers to Darfur for one example), are open to interpretation, and are so scattered throughout the aquis of international law that they are often overlooked.

Two initiatives aim to address this by collecting relevant obligations into one place and arranging them in such a way that they provide clear and comprehensive guidance to States when making decisions on arms transfers. The first, known as the Transfer Controls Initiative (TCI), focuses specifically on small arms and light weapons. The TCI aims to elaborate on States' undertakings in the UN Programme of Action on the illict trade in small arms and light weapons in order to develop a set of common guidelines that all States could refer to when deciding whether or not to authorise transfers of small arms and light weapons. This initiative has made good progress in recent years and could potentially make a valuable contribution to regulating the small arms trade in the short- to medium-term.

The second initiative is at once more ambitious and more difficult. It aims to negotiate a new legally-binding treaty to regulate the transfer of all conventional weapons, from armalites to aircraft-carriers. This so-called Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) initiative is still in its preliminary stages, although it has the support of a large majority of UN Member States. Actual negotiations are unlikely to start before 2009, but if they do begin, and are successful, an ATT has the potential, in the medium- to long-term, to provde by far the strongest framework yet for regulating arms transfers.

Properly regulating the legitimate arms trade is the best way to minimise the risk that weapons will be misused to intimidate, displace or kill civilians; or to spark regional conflicts. From Japan to Canada and many places in between, both north and south, this message is gaining traction.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Tokyo Workshop on Small Arms and Light Weapons, 12-13 March 2007. For more information, click here.

Helsinki Process Roundtable on Small Arms and Light Weapons, 25-27 March 2007. http://www.helsinkiprocess.fi

"Sudan Defying Security Council on Darfur, U.N. Says," New York Times, 17 April 2007, available here.

Mural detail from a Shinto shrine in Kyoto (photo: Patrick Mc Carthy)

Sunday, 15 April 2007

What we could learn from the Man of the Woods

Today, the British Sunday Times reported that the chimpanzee has just been knocked off the top of the "IQ tree". What that tree is, and whether that includes another primate species likely to lay claim to that title - homo sapiens - is unclear (I assume it doesn't). The article said:

"ORANG-UTANS have been named as the world’s most intelligent animal in a study that places them above chimpanzees and gorillas, the species traditionally considered closest to humans.

The study found that out of 25 species of primate, orang-utans had developed the greatest power to learn and to solve problems.

The controversial findings challenge the widespread belief that chimpanzees are the closest to humans in brainpower. They also suggest that the ancestry of orang-utans and humans may be more closely entwined than had been thought."

James Lee, a Harvard psychologist quoted by the article as an author of the study making these claims apparently said, “It is even possible that an orang-utan-like forager occupied a pivotal link in the chain of descent leading to man.”

Well, good on the orang-utan, of which I'm very fond. And it's great that some prominence is being given to them when orang-utans are endangered as never before due to encroachment onto their home habitats in the swampy jungles of Sumatra and Borneo. One of the tragic ironies about growing interest in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels is increased demand for palm oil, which is accelerating the destruction of the homes of these amazing human relatives to make way for palm oil plantations. (Orang-utan means "man of the forest" or "man of the woods" in Malay and Indonesian.)

By way of background, most people are aware that we share most of our DNA with the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Less well known is that there is another species of chimpanzee that's just as closely related to us, one that vaguely resembles Pan troglodytes, but which socially is completely different from both. I'm talking about the bonobo, or Pan paniscus. In fact, until the late 1920s, scientists didn't even have an inkling that bonobos were a different species from common chimps given their resemblance, and referred to the few museum specimens as pygmy chimpanzees.

Chimps and bonobos form a common genus: Pan. Our human lineage diverged from Pan only about 5.5 million years ago according to DNA comparisons. (In fact, some scientists argue that we're closely enough related in genes and time to chimps and bonobos that we should be regarded as a single genus: Homo.) Gorillas split around 7.5 million years ago and orang-utans an estimated 14 million years ago, much longer than our other relatives among the great apes - even if not that long in overall evolutionary terms.

In view of that, Lee's study would seem to indicate that the remarkable growth in mental faculties that are a hallmark of the higher primates must have started a very long time ago - perhaps much longer than conventionally thought.

Nevertheless, in reporting on Lee's study, one part of the Sunday Times article read as follows:

"He also found that the single most important factor in deciding a species’ intelligence was simply the size of its brain: “The correlation of brain size with mental ability found in humans appears to extend throughout the primate order.”"

Really? Well, if brain size translated into brain power, what about elephants and whales, which each have brains very large in total weight and size? I suspect Lee has been misrepresented here, and that he's referring to part of the brain called the neocortex. This is the bit that handles complex social relationships and is a recent addition in evolutionary terms, developing on the outer surface of the brain over time in response to the pressures of social living as these increased among our ancestors over millions of years.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and others at Liverpool University have compared relative neocortex size among the higher primates. The results are unambiguous: we have the biggest neocortex area by far, which figures as humans have the most complex social relationships and the largest social group sizes (although even we tend to max out at around 150 in terms of the sustained social relationships we can handle. Aurélia Merçay and I wrote a little about this and its implications for negotiating in chapter 7 of DHA's third volume, "Thinking Outside the Box" at left).

It's slightly surprising that orang-utans have come out on top among non-human primates in their abilities to carry out mental tasks because they're generally considered less sociable than chimps and bonobos. But then there's a lot we didn't realize about the way they lived until very recently, thanks to pioneering field work by the Dutch primatologist Carel van Schaik and his colleagues. Their definitive reports of tool use and, crucially, proto-cultural transmission of tool use among wild orang-utan populations astounded the scientific world in late 2005.

The ways primate species live socially is significant. Although chimps and bonobos are superficially similar in appearance and are species of the same genus, for instance, they live completely differently in social terms and also manage problems of conflict and achieve reconciliation in very different ways. (If chimps are from Mars, bonobos are from 'Boogie Nights'.)

Common chimps and bonobos live in larger and more complex social groups than orang-utans. If orang-utans are turning out to be much more mentally capable than previously imagined, there might also be things about their social life we've missed, given the difficulty of studying them in their dense and remote jungle habitats.

So what? Well, as another Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal explained in books such as "Chimpanzee Politics" and "Our Inner Ape", bonobos and common chimps have a lot to teach us about understanding the roots of human aggression and practical conflict resolution.

Not least about coalition politics, at which both species could show more than a thing or two to many an experienced human diplomat or politician. For example, de Waal documented machinations for power among competing males in a captive chimpanzee colony in the Netherlands in the 1970s that resulted in the death of one and which would have given Machiavelli a run for his money in terms of subtlety and complexity. (In the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich, U.S. House Speaker, was reportedly so impressed with "Chimpanzee Politics" that he made it required reading for his junior colleagues in Congress.)

As in humans, xenophobia, rape and murder have been documented in common chimps, which, by inference, has fuelled pessimism about 'Man, the warlike ape'. Yet good news is that our other equally close cousin, the bonobo, seems much more effective in resolving conflict and dealing with and preventing violence, which contradicts this gloomy view. It also seems to be no coincidence that coalitions of females hold the reins of power in bonobo society.

I wouldn't be surprised if orang-utans also have something useful to teach us about conflict and reconciliation, just as chimpanzee and bonobo studies are already doing. A lot is being learned about the role of emotions and gender, the origins of human morality and the influence of social hierarchies to fuel or restrain violence by placing our species within the context of our cousins, the other great apes.

Which is good news for us if we don't drive them to extinction first.

John Borrie


"Chimps Knocked Off Top of the IQ Tree", Sunday Times (15 April 2007): http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1654998.ece

R.I.M. Dunbar, "Co-evolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans", Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1993: 16, pp. 681-735.

Frans de Waal, "Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes" (rev. edn) (Baltimore: the John Hopkins University Press: 2000), "Our Inner Ape: the Best and Worst of Human Nature" (London: Granta: 2005)

International Herald Tribune/New York Times, "In Search of the Smart Orangutan" (16 November 2005), available here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Trying to account for mass participation in the Rwandan genocide

In a period of about 100 days, from 6 April to mid-July 1994, experts have estimated that civilian militias and members of the national army dominated by the Hutu ethnic group killed some 500’000 to 800’000 Tutsi (another group) and moderate Hutu in the African country of Rwanda. While these figures are striking indicators of the most rapidly occurring genocide of the 20th century, also deeply disturbing was the high level of participation in the killing, estimated at between 200’000 and 500’000 people.

While the Rwandan genocide will forever remain morally unfathomable, how can we begin to account for such a large-scale level of participation in the killing, in the hope that unambiguous danger signs might be identified to prevent it happening again?

In a book published in 2006 (see reference below), Ravi Bhavnani posed the question: did killing Tutsi become the norm in the Hutu ethnic group? Bhavnani argued that the level of participation in the Rwandan genocide can be explained by the “emergence of a violence-promoting norm among the Hutu community”.

In his chapter, Bhavnani noted that studies pointing to explanations such as structural factors or to Rwanda’s culture – described as one “of fear” or “of deep conformity” – fail to explain the emergence of such large-scale violent behaviour. Likewise, the significance of the death of Rwandan President Habyarimana in a plane crash near Kigali airport on 6 April as the major catalyst for the genocide is problematic.

Starting from the idea that norms are emergent properties of social systems, Bhavnani used complexity theory and simulation by agent-based modeling (ABM) to try to develop an explanation for the emergence of a violence-promoting norm among Hutu people.

The existence of a norm depends upon complex patterns of interactions between the individuals forming a society. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda, Bhavnani argued, was a “densely populated, heterogeneous society” with frequent connections and intermarriage between the two major ethnic groups – Hutu and Tutsi – leading to a complex pattern of interactions. Bhavnani added:

“When a population mixes randomly, extremists eventually have the opportunity to interact with moderates, and observe and punish their behaviour.”
In other words, in Rwanda it was about killing or being killed.

By focusing on microlevel dynamics, Bhavnani hoped this ABM could show how local interactions could bring about massive Hutu participation in the killing. Of course, however intriguing, Bhavani’s work on its own is unlikely to settle the debate over what really caused the genocide. But it serves to underline the worth of studying collective violence by using bottom-up approaches and of appreciating the complex nature of many human social interactions or, as Bhavnani put it, that:
“The causes of conflict constitute partial explanations at best, and are inextricably linked to the process by which conflict unfolds.”

Aurélia Merçay


See chapter 6: Agent-Based Models in the Study of Ethnic Norms and violence, by R. Bhavnani in Complexity in World Politics: Concepts and Methods of a New Paradigm, N.E. Harrison & J.N. Rosenau, 2006, SUNY series in Global Politic, State University of New York Press.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Can network theory help track terrorists – or small arms?

Al Qaeda is often referred to as an atypical organization without central authority that operates like a swarm. In a 2005 interview, Spanish counterterrorism judge Baltasar Garzón said that, following the loss of key leaders during the first year of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism, Al Qaeda convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002, at which the group’s consultative council decided that it could no longer operate as a hierarchy, but instead would have to become a decentralized network.

Can network theory help us destabilize or even neutralize terrorist groups?

Well, it seems to be possible. In a recent article in The Boston Globe (see reference below), I read that the Pentagon asked a team of scientists from Boston to look at the potential of “social network analysis” to study the web of relationships among terrorist organizations, arms scientists, and suppliers in order to help prevent terrorists from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction.

By reconstructing the web of the cultural, political, and financial connections among terrorists, it’s possible to identify the individuals who are most highly socially connected. These key players – also known as “hubs” – are not necessarily the leaders of the organization: they are the nodes that hold the network together. By knocking down a critical hub, you may disable the whole network.

This method has been used retroactively by Valdis Krebs, a Cleveland consultant, to determine the key role of Mohamed Atta among the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 terrorist attacks. Network theory was also at the center of the U.S. military programme called “Mongo Link”, whose aim was to chart Saddam Hussein’s relationships and which eventually led to his capture near his hometown of Tikrit.

Determining hubs and relationships in terrorist networks is a major challenge. Although some networks are obvious in hindsight, the real difficulty is to disable them before they act.

Network theory also may have wider applicability to other security issues, in which relationships are important to understanding what’s going on. (John Borrie and I discussed this in our chapter in the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project’s third volume of research, see reference below.) In particular, a potential use for this tool could be to identify the significant nodes and critical connections of illicit small arms proliferation networks.

Aurélia Merçay


Bryan Bender, “Antiterrorism agency taps Boston-area brains: Analysts plumb arms networks”, The Boston Globe, March 27, 2007.

Aurélia Merçay and John Borrie , “A Physics of diplomacy? The Dynamics of Complex Social Phenomena and Their Implications for Multilateral Negotiations”, Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations, UNIDIR, 2006, pp. 129-164, available online here.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Tune in, turn on and pod out! Disarmament Insight podcasts go live

The Disarmament Insight initiative held its first workshop with diplomats, NGOs and researchers at the Chateau de Bossey near Geneva on 19 January 2007. The meeting examined what we can learn from recent experience in improving multilateral negotiating practice.

Discussions at the workshop were according to the Chatham House Rule. However, wouldn't it be cool, we thought, if we could make the kick-off presentations available on the internet for everyone?

Voila! Copying and then pasting the URL into your browser's navigation bar will take you to the Disarmament Insight podcast site:


We hope you enjoy the 3 presentations there:

- David Atwood on limits and possibilities for Non-Governmental Organisations in multilateral disarmament diplomacy;

- Daniel Prins presenting a diplomat's perspective on engineering progress in multilateral disarmament; and

- my own presentation, entitled "Freakomacy: exploring the hidden side of disarmament review conferences".

The site also contains information about how to listen to these audio podcasts online or save them to your computer or music player. Note that you need iTunes and Quicktime Player or other software that plays AAC format files for these pod casts to work. If you don't have them, Mac and Windows versions of both apps can be downloaded free from www.apple.com/itunes.

Feel free to share these audio podcasts with others. Our podcast site is only a few days old and as such may still have a few wrinkles to be ironed out. But in coming months we intend to put more podcasts here on the web, as well as add our site to the iTunes store podcast directory to make them easy to find (don't worry, they'll remain free).

Tune in, turn on and pod out!

John Borrie