Disarmament Insight


Friday, 28 September 2007

Cluster munitions: hearing the voices of the affected

Some years ago, in 2003, I wrote a global survey of explosive remnants of war for the British non-governmental organization (NGO), Landmine Action, to feed into work in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The survey was a fairly preliminary piece of desk-research. It simply aimed at pulling together existing bits of information about explosive munitions (apart from landmines) that had been abandoned or failed to function as intended, in order to produce a 'snapshot' of the ERW problem around the world for the year 2001.

One of the survey's conclusions was that:

"cluster submunitions appear to pose an especially severe risk to civilians in the limited set of conflicts in which they have been used. This trend, associated with the face that cluster munitions are being procured or manufactured by an increasing number of countries, means that their post-conflict threat to civilians can be expected to further increase given the high failure rates and high lethality of this weapon type."

A great deal of research has been carried out since, and a wide range of sources only strengthen this finding. Although there's more research to be done, the reports that have been produced offer enough information to underline the problematic nature of cluster munition use, the most comprehensive recent report being Handicap International's 'Circle of Impact'. Moreover, the conflict in Southern Lebanon in 2006 underlined the humanitarian problems that cluster munitions create, whether used by professional military forces or armed non-state groups.

Unlike the anti-personnel mine ban campaign in the 1990s, the world - fortunately - doesn't yet face a cluster munition 'epidemic', although current trends being what they are this may well change. And, unlike anti-personnel mines, explosive submunitions are designed to kill rather than maim. So images of victims haven't been so prominent yet in international efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions through a new treaty for at least two reasons: because there is a smaller pool of victims - for now, and so far as we know - and because more of that total pool of victims of cluster munitions are dead rather than injured. The dead simply don't tell their tales so emphatically.

A third reason is that, until now, there hasn't been an opportunity for states affected by cluster munitions to gather specifically in order to assess the human costs of cluster munitions around civilians.

Next week that will change. The government of Serbia is convening an international conference in Belgrade of states affected by cluster munitions, in which international organizations including the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross, and NGOs (many of whom are member of the Cluster Munition Coalition) will also play a part.

The topics to be discussed at the Belgrade Conference will focus on three main elements:

- survivor assistance;

- explosive ordnance clearance; and

- international assistance and cooperation.

The aim is to allow affected countries to share experiences and jointly produce some recommendations - recommendations which are likely to be incorporated into the Oslo process, if not the CCW's work.

As Serbia itself has pointed out:

"The input of countries affected by cluster munitions is crucial in establishing a treaty that addresses the needs of cluster munition survivors. A future treaty must take into account the experiences, challenges and concerns faced by people who live with the everyday consequence of cluster munition attacks."

It sounds to me like disarmament as humanitarian action in practice. I'll be attending and will report back to you about it on this blog.

John Borrie

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Complexity and Arms Control Diplomacy

As part of its work, the Disarmament Insight initiative has hosted a sequence of workshops this year with Geneva disarmament practitioners to encourage them to think out of the box in their work. For example, previous visitors to our site may recall that on 25 May we held a workshop on 'human security, human nature and trust-building in negotiation' with speakers including the primatologist Frans de Waal, economist Paul Seabright and Robin Coupland from the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Podcasts of some of these talks are available by clicking on the podcast panel in the left column.)

Yesterday, we hosted another workshop with multilateral practitioners, this time on the theme of 'complexity and diplomacy: Understanding the implications for multilateral arms control'.

Diplomats love to talk about the complexity involved in their endeavours. But they usually do it in a rhetorical sense, without realizing that complexity is actually a domain of scientific research and that complex phenomena have particular features. But what's complicated isnt' the same as what's complex. A better understanding among arms control practitioners about what complexity is - and recognising the hallmarks of complex social phenomena - could, we think, help make their work more effective and has implications for human security thinking.

Small arms proliferation and the diffusion of new technologies, like say those in the life sciences that could be turned to hostile use, have many characteristics that indicate they're complex social phenomena. Multilateral negotiations themselves might also even be considered as complex social phenomena. We explored some of these ideas in our third volume of research, Thinking Outside the Box in Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.

Yesterday we were joined by two speakers who've been big influences on our thinking - Paul Ormerod and Philip Ball (pictured above). Philip, a consultant editor at the scientific journal Nature and science writer and broadcaster, is author of a remarkable book, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, which won the Aventis Prize in 2005 and explores the relevance of complexity and statistical physics to the social world. Paul Ormerod is an economist and author of Butterfly Economics and Why Most Things Fail, and is an innovative and creative modeller on a wide range of real-world issues ranging from violent crime in the United Kingdom to the political stability of China.

In addition to the DHA project's own resident physicist and researcher, Aurélia Merçay, Philip and Paul discussed their work, and the relevance of concepts and applications of complexity to arms control efforts. One such application is a conceptual multiple equilibrium model Aurélia developed to examine the mechanisms involved in demand for small arms, in part based on Paul Ormerod's work. And it's clear from discussion with the diplomats and others attending that there are many other potential useful applications.

In coming weeks, after the dust has settled, look out for free podcasts of presentations by Aurélia, Philip and Paul from this site, or for download from the iTunes Music Store by searching there for 'Disarmament Insight'.

John Borrie


Ball, Philip, “Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another.” London: Arrow

Merçay, Aurélia & Borrie, John, A physics of diplomacy? The dynamics of complex social phenomena and their implications for multilateral negotiations in Borrie, John & Martin Randin, Vanessa (eds.), “Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.” Geneva: UNIDIR: 2006.

Merçay, Aurélia, Non-Linear modelling of small arms proliferation in Borrie, John & Martin Randin, Vanessa (eds.), “Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.” Geneva: UNIDIR: 2006.

Ormerod, Paul, “Butterfly Economics.” London: Fontana: 1999.

Ormerod, Paul, “Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics.” London: Faber & Faber: 2005.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Children’s drawings describing Darfur atrocities

Human Rights Watch (HRW): What's happening here?
13-year-old artist: These men in green are taking the women and the girls.
HRW: What are they doing?
Boy: They are forcing them to be wife. The houses are on fire.
HRW: What's happening here?
Boy: This is an Antonov. This is a helicopter. These here, at the bottom of the page, these are dead people.

Last week, while looking for a picture to illustrate a post on systematic rape in DRC, I came across a series of drawings from children who were refugees in camps along the Chad-Darfur border.

These pictures date from February 2005, when two Human Rights Watch researchers, Dr. Annie Sparrow and Olivier Bercault, visited refugee camps in Chad in order to assess issues of insecurity and sexual violence.

The two researchers gave paper and crayons to children so that they could draw while their parents and caretakers were interviewed.

Without any instructions or guidance, the children drew scenes from their experiences of the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region: the bombings by Sudanese government helicopters and Antonov planes, the villages burning, the attacks by mounted Janjaweed (using the UN definition, the Janjaweed – thought to mean “a man with a gun on a horse” – are comprised of nomadic Arabic-speaking African tribes, the core of whom are from Abbala (camel herder) background with significant Lambo recruitment from the Baggara (cattle herder) people), the shootings of civilians, the rape of women and girls, and the flight to Chad.

Although they date from early 2005, these drawings are highly topical. According to UN estimates, the Darfur conflict – which is still going today – has killed more than 200,000 people and at least 2.2 million people have fled their homes since 2003.

Click here to see Darfur children’s drawings.

Aurélia Merçay


Darfur Drawn, The conflict in Darfur through children’s eyes, Human Rights Watch, http://hrw.org/photos/2005/darfur/drawings/index.htm.

A. Sparrow and O. Bercault, The Art of War: Children's drawings illustrate Darfur atrocities, 14 July 2005, Slate, available online at http://www.slate.com/id/2122730/.

Statistics retrieved from a press conference by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at UN Headquarters. See "Darfur: Ban Ki-moon says peace talks must be 'final phase' towards settlement", UN News Centre, 10 September 2007, available here.

Drawing from a 13-year-old boy, who fled Darfur and was living in a refugee camp in Chad in 2005 (no more recent information), see http://hrw.org/photos/2005/darfur/drawings/13.htm.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Bulletproof Babies

This week, a friend of mine sent me a link to the webpage of bulletproofbaby.net along with his commentary that "something is profoundly rotten in America." I can understand his exasperation, seeing as he is a researcher on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons whose main goal in life is to find ways of reducing armed violence in the world.

The company's homepage features the above video of a woman demonstrating the protective power of a bulletproof stroller by placing a baby (presumably her own) in it and then opening fire with an automatic weapon. The baby emerges unscathed and smiling from the episode.

A few things made me question whether all of this was for real. The way the company's founder and CEO described how she came up with the idea for her products struck me as surreal. She explains, "When stray bullets hit the pram but narrowly missed my son, I realised there was a gap in the market for a range of products to protect babies in today's increasingly violent society." Not the thought that would be going through most parents' minds in such a situation.

In the video, the stroller would have been overturned by live ammo, so blanks were obviously being used. I also found it strangely inconsiderate that the mother firing the assault rifle at her baby should be wearing glasses and ear mufflers while her baby wore no such protective gear (apart from the kevlar stroller that is).

Finally, some of the company's products were also a bit puzzling; not least the toddler taser. How could a toddler possibly use a taser!? I surmised that the taser was perhaps meant to be used on the toddler when tantrums showed signs of escalation.

After a bit of digging, I found out that the whole thing is a hoax designed to promote a particularly violent film entitled, imaginatively enough, "Shoot 'em Up," which features, it seems, babies crawling frequently into the line of fire. I won't be rushing out to see that one and I sincerely hope that this posting does not cause anyone else to do so.

All the same, this episode is startling; not least because it is believable, which is a dire reflection on the state of insecurity and fear in which many people in the world today live, especially in urban areas. I'm sure that people tried to buy these products - the "baby bomb blanket" maybe (effective against most pipe bombs and hand grenade fragments), or "my first gas mask" (to protect against chemical weapons, dirty bombs or nerve agents). In fact, it would not surprise me to learn that there were so many hits on the site that some enterprising individual is taking up the idea for real.

Watch this space.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Video from fakiris33 on youtube.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Thinking Outside the Bomb: The Road From Oslo

Negotiations on an international treaty to ban anti-personnel mines were successfully concluded ten years ago this week. A decade later, the Mine Ban Treaty has 155 state parties and, although substantial implementation challenges remain, is generally seen as a "success in progress" in destroying stockpiles, clearing mined land and assisting victims of anti-personnel mines.

Perhaps more than any other disarmament-related treaty, the mine ban norm has retained focus on helping mine-affected people and their communities on the ground through its partnership between both mine-affected and donor governments and civil society. And the treaty has stigmatized mine use around the world to an impressive degree.

This week, I've been participating in a round of events in Oslo to commemorate completion of the Mine Ban Treaty, all grouped around the theme of "clearing the path for a better future". It's been great to see so many familiar faces - of friends and colleagues who've come, gone and returned over the years of the mine ban process - and to renew these old ties.

This week's events have also added impetus to the international campaign to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The Oslo Process, which emerged in February of this year with support from 46 governments, had expanded to 80 by the start of this week and has since grown further. At this rate of growth in support, the process will have more than 100 states behind it by the end of 2007.

Although not a view shared by all of those governments represented at the 10th anniversary event yesterday, there is a growing sense that the time is ripe to seize the opportunity to tackle cluster munitions, as those in the Ottawa process did a little over a decade ago in response to problems caused by anti-personnel mines. Most likely this will be through a ban on at least some cluster munitions, which will be the object of tough negotiations to come at international conferences in Vienna (December), Wellington (February 2008) and Dublin (May 2008). And, with the Mine Ban Treaty's focus on enhancing the security of ordinary people in mind, it's likely the agreement that emerges next year will have similar measures to assist victims of submunitions.

Seizing this opportunity is not without political risk, but like the mine ban treaty before it, it'll be worth it. Some of the biggest cluster munition producers and users - like China, Russia and the United States - are not yet onboard. This clearly makes several NATO countries nervous and they would prefer work to be in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) process in Geneva. But hopes that the CCW will agree on a robust negotiating mandate at its November meeting are likely to be in vain in view of its consensus practice.

Ten years ago, the United Nations was behind the curve on the Ottawa process. In contrast, the UN family today announced a new, more ambitious position on cluster munitions, which

"calls on Member States to address immediately the horrendous, humanitarian, human rights and development effects of cluster munitions by concluding a legally binding instrument of international humanitarian law that:

- prohibits the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians;

- requires the destruction of current stockpiles of those munitions; and

- provides for clearance, risk education and other risk mitigation activities, victim assistance, assistance and cooperation, and compliance and transparency measures.

Until such a treaty is adopted, the UN calls on States to take domestic measures to immediately freeze the use and transfer of all cluster munitions."

John Borrie


If you'd like more background about cluster munitions, and an account concerning treatment of this weapon in the CCW and Oslo processes so far, you might be interested in reading a pre-print of my Disarmament Diplomacy article, "The Road from Oslo: Emerging international efforts on cluster munitions" on the Acronym Institute's website.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Do "non-lethal" weapons really exist?

Last week, I spent a day with a very interesting mixture of people talking about so-called “non-lethal” weapons. It was quite the multi-stakeholder encounter.

There was the demand side of the non-lethal equation; the police officers and soldiers who were interested in finding out what new technologies could provide in the way of enhanced capabilities to control riots, disperse crowds or otherwise apply force to sticky situations all the while minimising deaths and permanent injuries.

The supply side of the non-lethal equation was also well represented – the arms manufacturers, ever eager to apply new technologies in ingenious ways to respond to the demands of their customers. At one point during the proceedings, we were even given demonstrations of some of the newest non-lethal innovations; e.g. a handgun that fires jets of chemical irritant at 430km/h, a trailer-mounted gas dispenser, and the mother of all paint-ball guns (complete with colour-coded slugs filled with a choice of indelible or washable paint or chemical pepper agent).

Mixed in among the demand and the supply elements were what you might call the multipliers – research and technology professionals offering their services to help bring the two sides together.

There were, however, no lawyers present.

I’m not a lawyer myself, but I found myself stepping into that role on numerous occasions throughout the day, inadequately of course. After all, the debate on so-called non-lethal technologies throws up a lot of thorny questions, legal and otherwise.

First and foremost, what is a non-lethal weapon? Most definitions focus on the purpose for which the weapon was designed, i.e., to incapacitate people while minimising fatalities. But the lethality of a weapon is determined less by the purpose of its design and more by the context of its use. It depends on how, where and when the weapon is employed, the motivation of the user of the weapon and, crucially, the vulnerability of the victim of the weapon (for more on this approach, see Aurélia Merçay's posting of September 5).

Looked at in this way, an AK47 assault rifle is 100% lethal when used to execute a person tied to a post (the intent of the user is to kill and the vulnerability of the victim is very high). When used in combat conditions, however, an AK47 is much less lethal, killing on average less than 20% of those it hits.

Similarly, a Taser electroshock device, now used by numerous police forces, was designed as a non-lethal weapon and is normally employed as such. However, if the user has malicious intent or is badly trained and/or if the victim is particularly vulnerable (e.g. suffering from an epileptic fit) it too can be lethal.

As a final example, the incapacitating agent pumped by Russian forces into the Moscow theatre on 26 October 2002 ended the siege but killed at least 129 of the 850 theatregoers. That’s upwards of a 15% lethality rate; comparable with that of an AK47 under combat conditions.

The point that I am trying to make here is that there is no such thing, per se, as a “non-lethal” weapon. All weapons can be lethal under certain conditions.

Another point that worried me was that participants in the meeting did not seem to draw a distinction between the domestic application of non-lethal force by police and its international application by soldiers. This is a crucial distinction. The Biological Weapons Convention prohibits biological and toxin weapons, even in incapacitating doses, being used anywhere, either in a domestic or international context.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, however, contains an exception that allows chemical agents such a tear gas to be used in domestic riot-control situations. It is therefore legal, under domestic law, for most police forces to fire tear gas to disperse angry crowds. It would be illegal, under international law, for a soldier to do so in war.

The reason for this counterintuitive distinction? In a word, escalation. Allowing chemical weapons, even tear gas, to be used in war could lead to an escalation in chemical warfare retaliation that would be as bad, or even worse, than that experienced during World War I.

With such things at stake, we really do need to have lawyers in the room as well.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo Credit: Timophoto on flickr.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Facebook versus face to face

I’ve recently jumped onto the Facebook bandwagon. Currently, my profile shows 85 friends - a dismal number compared to some others linked into this networking site. One person I know boasts an incredible 881 friends. However, Dr Will Reader, an evolutionary psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, cautions that such huge contact lists are not an accurate indication of a person’s real social status.

According to the news reports, his research into the new types of friendships being fostered online shows that:

Social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace aren’t expanding people’s circles of close friends, but they are creating plenty of meaningless relationships.

His study showed that even though people may have hundreds or thousands of acquaintances, their core group of close friends is still unchanged at around five people. This research on social network sites could hold important insights for social organization in general.

Reader believes there are “good evolutionary reasons” explaining why core friendship groups are so small. Making friendships means investing time and even money in another person. This face-to-face contact is invaluable for people to assess if their investment is worthwhile. It’s “very easy to be deceptive” on the internet, said Reader.

His research findings imply that long distance communication technologies, while helping to broaden social networks, don’t necessarily deepen ties among people. These technologies may therefore be of limited value when trying to generate new partnerships or cooperative endeavors owing to the lack of face-to-face contact. It’s a finding that resonates with Jody William’s observations in an article she wrote in 1999 on the process leading to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Here she noted:
As important - and many might contend more so - as fax, phone and e-mail to link together the huge coalition, has been networking through travel and the building of personal relationships, both within the Campaign and between campaigners, and the various government and military representatives. Indeed, e-mail has been used relatively little for communications outside of the campaign, and the much remarked upon close cooperation between governments and NGOs during the Ottawa Process was more the result of face-to-face meetings than anything else.

Multilateral negotiators depend heavily on face to face dealings, and it’s unclear what the impact of new communication technologies have for their work, although Patricia Lewis has offered some examples in an earlier posting. (See Zapped! Mobile Technology in the Conference Chamber.) I echo her call for more research on this issue.

Vanessa Martin Randin


CBC News, It’s hard to make close friends on Facebook, study says, 10 September 2007, www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2007/09/10/science-websites.html.

Jody Williams, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines – A Model for Disarmament Initiatives?, 3 September 1999, www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/williams/index.html

Dr Will Reader’s biography and information about his research work can be found here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Systematic rape in Congo: a weapon of war

Last week, John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, spent four days in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the UN’s efforts to assess the humanitarian situation in the region.

Quoted in a Washington Post article published on 9 September 2007, he described the prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo as “almost unimaginable” and “worse than anywhere else in the world”. “Rape has become almost a cultural phenomenon”, Holmes noted.

In DRC, sexual violence is a component of a broader environment of insecurity. The presence in the forests of eastern Congo of Hutu militias (which fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide), along with other armed groups, has menaced the Congolese civilian population for more than 10 years. As Holmes described it:

“There needs to be a political solution to the problems there, which are connected to the past, to the genocide in Rwanda.”

Some figures? In DRC, according to the United Nations:
> About 300’000 people have been displaced in the last 10 months. Because basic resources, such as food and clean water, are missing in refugee camps, people die from hunger or disease;
> Nearly 4’500 cases of sexual violence have been reported in just one eastern province of DRC in the last 9 months. Real figures are probably much higher.

Systematic sexual violence against women and girls is a facet of warfare. It is used as a weapon of terror, aiming at terrorizing and dominating civilian populations, who often have to flee their homes in the hope of escaping sexual assaults, torture and mutilations. An article published in The Nation in 2004 noted that:
“Based on personal testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that as many as 30% of rape victims are tortured and mutilated during the assaults, usually with spears, machetes, sticks or gun barrels thrust into their vaginas. [] About 40% of rape victims, usually the younger ones , aged 8 to 19, are abducted and forced to become sex slaves.”

Beside the physical and psychological damage inflicted on women and children, it is reported that systematic rape is leading to a wide contamination of the population by HIV/AIDS.

Sexual violence in DRC is of a “systematic” nature. By recognizing that sexual violence is deliberately and strategically planned – like it was the case in Rwanda and in Bosnia-Herzegovina (in 2001, for the first time ever, rape was successfully prosecuted as a crime against humanity in a trial of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) –, a case could be made that it violates international humanitarian law.

Rape in DRC could then be prosecuted as crime against humanity or as a form of genocide.

Aurélia Merçay


Stephanie McCrummen, “Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World”, The Washington Post, 9 September 2007, available online here.

Jan Goodwin, “Silence=Rape”, The Nation, 8 March 2004, available online here.

Photo by cyclopsr retrieved from Flickr: "the surgery of 4-year-old Vitonsi was successful and she is now recovering. But she, as well as her mother, is deeply traumatized by the rape."

Monday, 10 September 2007

Fooled by randomness?

One interesting and useful aspect of working in a think-tank like UNIDIR is that I often get the opportunity to talk with diplomats about their work and can sometimes observe them doing it. In return, diplomats can - and do - give feedback on the sorts of ideas and suggestions we can offer as researchers on the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action (DHA) project.

In multilateral diplomacy, like many other walks of life, there seems to be a bit of a generation gap or, perhaps more accurately, a "rank" gap. Younger, less-senior diplomats are fascinating to listen to in this regard, as their collective sense of the weaknesses of their institutional structures and ways of working, and problems with collective approaches is sometimes much more acute than the ambassadors. I imagine it may be because ambassadors are more sheltered from some of the less sexy drudgery of multilateral meetings and perhaps even feel they have more a stake in the traditions that characterize their "community of practice".

Whatever the reason, I had a productive time today talking with young officials on the United Nations Disarmament Fellows programme. (Well, young is relative - many are older than me.) These junior to mid-level diplomats come from a wide variety of countries from Pakistan to Switzerland to Fiji and bring with them a diverse range of outlooks.

Conscious that they've been lectured to a lot in recent weeks about the nuts-and-bolts of "disarmament machinery", I thought I'd take a different tack. Recently I began reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's remarkable book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which I think should be required reading for every policy maker. (Taleb is also author of an earlier book, Fooled by Randomness.)

There's an old saying that what you don't know can't hurt you. It's quite a stupid expression really, since the things we don't know really can hurt us (think about the 1929 and 1987 stock-market crashes, which hurt plenty of people. Or the 2004 Asian tsunami).

Taleb argued in his book that the things that can hurt us most are the things we think we do know, but actually don't. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, if there are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns", the problem is that some of the latter are unknown precisely because we think we know them but don't. Taleb noted that nobody, for instance, predicted the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union's empire in 1989. Soviet-watchers were convinced the communist regime would remain in power for years longer, if not decades. The fall of the Berlin Wall surprised everyone.

Taleb's book was a useful entry point for exploring with these 20 or so younger diplomats two broad themes, drawing from a wide range of literature, the DHA project's research and this blog (type 'Thornton' into the search-box for some entries):

- Cognitive features hardwired into all human beings constrain the way in which we can perceive the world, and thus affect our decision making.

- A second problem is that the world isn't a smooth, linear narrative. That is, the world doesn't conform with our expectations, although we may fool ourselves into thinking so. That's because, as human beings, we have brains that are very good at re-shaping our expectations in hindsight without even realizing it, of confirming our beliefs without evidence, and intuitively leading us to the wrong answers when careful thought would serve us much better. We're not well-adapted to cope with complexity, which can be counter-intuitive.

It resulted in an interesting discussion and a good level of engagement. Perhaps the diplomats were just being polite, but I got the impression they regard these issues as real, and worthy of more attention in multilateral diplomacy than they currently get. They seem concerned that "business as usual" isn't working, and we need better ways of cooperating in the face of international uncertainty. I suspect Nassim Nicholas Taleb would agree.

John Borrie


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's web page is here.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Nash.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Arms and Non-State Groups

The biggest threat facing the world today, according to some, is weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of terrorists. A chilling enough scenario, granted, but how likely is it actually to transpire? And what about weapons other than WMD in the hands of non-State groups broadly defined? Shouldn't we be worried about that as well?

Indeed, there is plenty to be worried about, as was highlighted this week by a UNIDIR seminar on "Preventing the Spread of Weapons to Non-State Armed Groups." Interestingly, participants seemed to be less worried about the prospect of terrorists building or otherwise acquiring a nuclear device than they were about them getting their hands on such relatively low-tech devices as shoulder-fired guided missiles capable of downing commercial airliners.

It all seemed to boil down to a (albeit inexact) calculation of risk; understood as probability multiplied by consequences. One speaker rated the probability of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons as being so low as to drastically reduce the overall risk, despite the dire consequences of it actually happening. Another pointed out that - in the age of the biotech revolution, suicide bombings and global travel - a more effective way for terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction might be to infect themselves with a new strain of a deadly virus and travel on international flights, potentially unleashing a global pandemic.

For me, however, the most interesting part of the whole debate centered on the acquisition by non-State groups of conventional weaponry; something that happens all the time. Most States represented in the UNIDIR seminar came into being as a result of armed struggle - i.e. as non-state armed groups rising up against colonial powers or pre-existing States. Obviously, States existing today have a strong interest in maintaining the status-quo by crushing all non-State groups that undermine their sovereignty or threaten their very existence . However, some States still seem to reserve the right to arm non-State groups in other countries, using them as tool of foreign policy to promote regime change.

The debate on preventing the spread of weapons to non-State armed groups tends to become immediately polarized along the lines of "terrorist" vs. "freedom fighter." Although the UNIDIR seminar did not manage to avoid this completely, it did suggest some interesting nuances. For example, participants suggested that it is more useful to speak about terrorist "acts" than about terrorist "groups" and that, since there are many different kinds of non-State armed groups - e.g. aspiring or not to statehood; engaging or not in attacks on civilians - it is not useful to paint them all with the same brush.

The thorny issue of arming non-State groups did not feature very prominently in last week's international conference in Geneva on small arms transfer controls (see my posting of August 23), which is perhaps one of the reasons that the conference was so successful. The issue will have to be dealt with head on, however, by the nascent UN process leading towards the negotiation of a legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty regulating the transfer of all conventional weapons. I have a feeling it will be a difficult nut to crack.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Photo credit: Monohex on flickr

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Analyzing armed violence: the Taback - Coupland model

Promoting human security will benefit from meaningful data. I recently attended a meeting organized by the Small Arms Survey (SAS) in Geneva, Switzerland, on the potential of using the Taback-Coupland model for human security mapping.

Nathan Taback, a Canadian statistician, and Robin Coupland, an advisor on armed violence at the International Committee of the Red Cross and former field surgeon, have developed a model that converts media reports into data in order to document and analyze the effects of armed violence.

The model is constructed around four parameters, which the researchers assume to be the “risk factors” for the effects of armed violence. It includes the nature of the weapon, the number of weapons used, the way the weapon is used, and the victim’s vulnerability. Coupland and Taback describe their model in a chapter of our third volume of research (“Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations”).

The idea is that, by extracting significant information from media reports – like the number of people killed, the number of people wounded, the type of weapon used, the number of weapons and the vulnerability of the victim (for instance, was there a wall to take shelter behind?) – then it’s possible to draw conclusions about the intent of the perpetrator.

This is pertinent to international criminal law. By providing a context, the Taback-Coupland model permits an “evidence-based” dialogue about the perpetrators and their intents and about the victims and their vulnerabilities.

A second way to use the model is to conduct probabilistic risk assessment of a country or a region and draw conclusions on which scenario is particularly risky for a specific vulnerable group.

Taback and Coupland tested their model using news reports on attacks on journalists, as these events tend to be well reported. Further applications – some already putting the model into practice, others at a preliminary stage – include a registry of explosive violence (Landmine Action UK), a registry of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and test-cases for country assessments carried out by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (in Uganda, Nigeria, Mauritania and Nepal).

Many participants at the meeting pointed out the poor quality of media reports and their lack of reliability. However, although not comprehensive, media reports are the only day-to-day public source of information about human insecurity. While one should be be careful when using media reports, it’s sometimes the only information available and it’s nevertheless possible to glean useful information from it.

Moreover, a long-term perspective could be to develop the model as a tool for journalists, who could directly enter the relevant data of the events linked to armed violence they observe.

While there are international surveillance systems for monitoring infectious disease outbreaks, no such system exists (yet) to evaluate on a regular basis the effects of armed violence on peoples’ lives. With that in mind, the method developed by Taback and Coupland is a useful contribution to international efforts to enhance human security, including in disarmament.

Aurélia Merçay


Cost Working group meeting on Using the Taback-Coupland Method for Human Security Mapping in SAS Country Assessments, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, Switzerland, 3 September 2007.

Picture inspired by a scheme presented by Robin Coupland at the meeting.

For more information, see N. Taback & R. Coupland, “Security of journalists: making the case for modelling armed violence as a means to promote human security”, published in Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations.

For a further introduction to the thinking behind the Taback-Coupland model see Robin’s chapter in our first volume of research, entitled “Modelling armed violence: a tool for humanitarian dialogue in disarmament and arms control”.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Landmines: Disarm!

Anti-personnel mines continue to kill and maim people, mostly civilians, around the world. Their effects are often worst in the poorest and most vulnerable communities that are trying to recover from conflict.

In 1997, a new international treaty was negotiated to ban anti-personnel mines, clear contaminated land, destroy mine stockpiles and help the victims. Later this month a conference in Oslo will commemorate 10 years of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and Disarmament Insight will report from there on its highlights.

But the job isn't done yet. It's easy in all of the hullaballoo and feel good vibe to overlook the real human costs of anti-personnel mines. A powerful reminder of the real life challenges of anti-personnel mines is the excellent independent film 'Disarm', co-produced by Mary Wareham, a contributor to our second volume, Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: From Perspective to Practice, and the film-maker Brian Liu.

I first saw 'Disarm' on the margins of the Nairobi Summit toward a mine-free world in late 2004. In the two-and-a-half years since word has spread and buzz has built about the documentary, and recently a 25 minute edit was broadcast on the Al Jazeera International satellite news channel.

The two parts of the edited film have been posted on YouTube, and you can watch them by clicking on the frames above or by following the links at the bottom.

John Borrie


There is a link to the 'Disarm' film website here.

'Disarm', Part 1, available on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaFCPNeb_MM.

'Disarm', Part 2, available on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ohe5siXeAxU.

Mary Wareham, "The Role of Landmine Monitor in promoting and monitoring compliance with the 1997 Mine Ban Convention".