Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Science, humanity and humanitarian action

This blog analyses what the word “humanity” means and proposes that a new definition and a modern way of speaking of humanity could improve “humanitarian dialogue” with respect to weapons, their use and public health. It suggests that those who use the term “humanity”, especially the International Red Cross Movement, should replace relatively vague references with a dialogue based on scientific insights and current knowledge of what this notion means.

“Humanity” is used in different ways. It can mean human beings collectively (“humanity as all humans”), but at the same time it carries notions of philanthropy and altruism (“humanity as moral sentiment.”). Within the latter meaning the “laws of humanity” and “crimes against humanity” are referred to in international treaties and humanity is cited as a source of international law. Humanity implies a moral force. But how this constrains inhumanity - that invariably involves use of force or acts of armed violence - is unclear.

People who use the words “humanity” and “humanitarian” are often perceived as - or really are – trying to place themselves on a moral high ground. It is unclear whether “humanity as moral sentiment” has been replaced by or integrated into contemporary concepts such as human rights, development, humanitarian intervention and human security. If we look for what is meant by “humanity” which is presented as the first, overarching principle of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we find an explanation of what is done in the spirit of humanity but not what it is. This impoverishes our interventions and often makes our pleadings appear sentimental, ill-informed and “unrealistic”. We therefore need to take a new look at humanity, what we mean by it, how we talk about it and how it can be used more effectively in dialogue about restraining or prohibiting certain weapons and acts of armed violence and in promoting human well being.

A knowledge-based approach to humanity

The last few hundred years have seen a massive increase in the population of the planet and the organization of “humanity-as-all-humans” into a system of nation-States. In parallel, we have seen remarkable advances in things that shape our existence such as manufacturing technology, commerce, communications, politics, health-care and weapons, to name but a few. In broad terms, the populations of States where there is access to these advances enjoy longer and better lives; the major reason for this is that they enjoy collective security. This security relies on having a legitimate capacity for armed violence either to defend the State (armed forces) or maintain law and order within the State (police) whilst, at the same time, placing great restraints on this capacity. Furthermore situations in which the capacity for armed violence is unrestrained (whether this be use of explosive weapons, displacement of whole populations or torture) is universally considered to be abhorrent (“humanity as moral sentiment”).

In brief it is increasingly recognized, and can be demonstrated by an important body of research, that people’s security is a prerequisite for their health and this applies to all of humanity “humanity as all humans”. This is not an original observation. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote, in effect, that without security, “… there is no place for industry... no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

“Humanity as moral sentiment” really does exist! It has been made objective in the work of multiple academic disciplines. An innate resistance to killing other humans is well documented (as are different means to overcome this resistance.) Studies of "primitive warfare" reveal that cruelty is not the norm, that fatalities may be few and that the violence is accompanied by much ritual and, importantly, restraint. It has been shown that altruism is a biological phenomenon observable throughout the animal world. Children who are educated to think about the plight of others who suffer some misfortune or cruelty are, in later life, less likely to resolve disputes by resorting to violence. On the negative side, studies have shown how ordinary people can be brought to inflict great pain and suffering on inoffensive strangers. The emotional distance brought by the use of explosive weapons that separate their user and victim in time and space has been explained. In the same vein, there is ample evidence that "dehumanization" of an enemy is an important element in the committing of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity; some even argue it's a prerequisite. In brief, “humanity as moral sentiment” and acts of inhumanity by humans are largely explicable in scientific terms and even in terms of our modern insights into evolved biology. An innate morality equips us for living in large groups. (It is shown that chimpanzees express moral sentiments too! Chimpanity!).

A new approach to “humanity” also has implications at the operational level. For example, in the world of global health, a new wind is blowing. This takes the form of rapidly advancing knowledge of the social determinants of health. Understanding the impact on health of education, housing, poverty, lifestyles and, above all, security moves the concern (and responsibility for) people’s health out of a traditional public health domain. This opens the door to tangible evidence-based interventions to improve people’s health without the need for formal health programmes. For example, in many parts of the world, the single most important factor determining whether a child dies in its first few months of life is the level of education of the mother. In a country torn by conflict, the education of girls may be severely repressed. A new approach to “humanity” –with weighty implications for people’s security and health - would bring authority to a claim that a programme targeting female illiteracy is both urgent and pertinent. Such a programme would find its correct place among the competing priorities for “humanitarian action.” Incorporating the social determinants of health into the activities of all components of the Movement is now an imperative.  Without doing so, it is difficult to claim we are well informed or driven by a serious notion of humanity.


The dual notions of humanity constantly interact.  The fulcrum of this interaction is the capacity of human beings and human society for armed violence and their capacity to restrain it. “Humanity as moral sentiment” limits, to the greatest extent possible, the effects of armed violence or threat of it on people’s security and health. It restrains the capacity for armed violence so that “humanity as all humans” can live in peaceful, constructive societies in which, for instance, family life, education, commerce and, most importantly, people’s health can flourish.

A definition of humanity combining both notions could read as follows: “With the goal of ensuring peaceful, collective and constructive human existence, humanity requires  the restraint of any capacity for armed violence and limits the effects of armed violence on people’s security and health.”

In light of the above, a new approach to speaking of “humanity” is needed that is in keeping with multiple insights drawn from contemporary knowledge. It should be objective, comprehensible, universal and communicable. It should reveal the common denominator of concern of all “humanitarian actors.” It should reinforce the six other fundamental principles of the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement. Such an approach would help demonstrate that the Movement (and any other actor invoking a notion of “humanity”) is open and listening to the world (including the world of science and inquiry) and not lofty, sentimental or simply “do-gooders”. This in turn could help engage those from other sectors and help motivate these circles and our own volunteer base, particularly among youth.

How does this new approach to talking about “humanity” help us in real terms? Promoting a well informed dialogue about weapons, violence, health and human well-being based on an objective understanding of humanity could force greater consideration of the vulnerabilities to armed violence of and its impact on people, groups, and communities. It would serve to raise the moral stakes in the humanitarian dialogue and increase the burden of responsibility on the users or potential users of weapons. This would occur because their actions would be discussed and analyzed in terms of what these actions mean for people’s lives and not only whether or not they are illegal. It would underscore the true universality of humanitarian law and human rights law and maintain a focus on the object and purpose of these bodies of law. Most importantly it would help generate a “facts-based” agenda for humanitarian action and assist the Movement in setting priorities.

Time taken for a new look at how we understand and communicate about “humanity” would be time well spent. It could change the international dialogue on the means to constrain armed violence and build healthy, sustainable societies. It permits an action-orientated view of the security and health of people who lack both and for whom life is still … “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

This is a guest blog contributed by Robin Coupland and Peter Herby.

Previous published thoughts on humanity, health and security by Dr Coupland are:
- “Humanity: what is it and how does it influence international law” International Review of the Red Cross 2001, Vol. 83, No. 844, p.969
- “The Humanity of Humans: Philosophy, Science, Health, or Rights?”
Health and Human Rights 2003, Vol. 7, p.159.
- “Exploring the humanity of humans” The Red Cross / Red Crescent Magazine 2004, Vol. 1, p.26.
- “Security, insecurity and health” Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 2007, Vol. 85, p.181.

Archimedes, one of the leading scientists and inventors in classical antiquity, is said to have remarked of the lever: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”. (The image above is an engraving from Mechanics Magazine published in London in 1824.)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Humanitarian Lens on Nuclear Weapons

There is renewed and deep international concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the detonation of nuclear weapons in populated areas. Yet 25 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence remain central to the security doctrines of a significant number of states. Drawing on a range of perspectives, the volume depicted above explores what viewing nuclear weapons through a humanitarian lens entails, and why it is undergoing such a revival. Recent developments in this respect are examined, as well as what these could mean for nuclear arms control in the near future.
The new publication was launched at UN Headquarters in New York on 16 October 2013.  To read it, use this link.
Tim Caughley and John Borrie, UNIDIR

Thursday, 22 August 2013

CD: Face-to-Face

Fifteen years have elapsed since the Conference on Disarmament last engaged in substantive work.  Briefly in August 1998 the CD tried to fulfil a newly agreed mandate to negotiate a ban on the production of fissile material.  Those efforts lasted three weeks.  Since then, negotiations on that issue have never risen beyond a procedural level.  The same is true for the other core agenda items – nuclear disarmament, preventing an arms race in outer space and negative security assurances.
During these barren years, no less than 90 presidents of the conference have grappled with the task of developing a programme of work for dealing with these four topics in a manner that is tolerable to the CD’s membership.  As required by the CD’s rules, the responsibility for chairing the 24-week annual session of the conference changes no less than six times each year. 
Sharing the presidency in alphabetical order of member states may be democratic, but it takes a toll on continuity.  And during this past decade and a half it has also proved a very lonely task.  In the absence of consensus on mandates for getting down to serious work, it has fallen to successive presidents to conduct constant shuttle diplomacy among individual delegations to find a breakthrough.  While those consultations take place off stage, the CD is effectively at a standstill.  Disarmament experts have begun to turn their attention to opportunities offered by new forums and approaches outside the conference.
Recently, the CD took a decision to mitigate both the effects of the discontinuity of the presidency and also its loneliness.  An informal working group has been established to produce the elusive programme of work. 
The duration of the new body will not be constrained by the rapid rotation of presidents.  Even better, as the group is open to all CD members and observers, a more transparent and inclusive process for uncovering and narrowing rooted differences of view should result (although this benefit will be tempered by the apparent exclusion of civil society, again).  Successive presidents will still have a role in conducting private consultations with concerned delegations, but that will no longer be the central dynamic.
One other reflection, in passing, on the rule to confine each CD presidency to four working weeks... If the conference does eventually succeed in elaborating and agreeing a programme of work, the issue of presidential rotation will fall away.  Attention would turn instead to the chairs of the subsidiary bodies established to carry out the real work of the conference.  The chairs of those bodies will become the key actors, and on past practice they won’t – and shouldn’t – be rotated month-by-month.  At that point the CD president’s role will revert largely to a titular one. 
In the meantime, if the informal working group is to salvage the CD’s credibility, it will recognise that its creation has surmounted a current short-coming in the conference’s methods of work.  An obstacle to face-to-face efforts, delegation-to-delegation, to forge the necessary compromises on matters of real substance has been removed. The issue of presidential continuity has been dealt with, and the responsibility for settling the CD's long-standing differences has been placed where it belongs - on the membership as a whole. Let the thawing begin...

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

CD: Three Mysteries

Three aspects of the Conference on Disarmament’s longstanding paralysis are particularly mystifying.
First, despite all the agonising among the 65 CD members about the current deadlock, there has been no emergence of a group of concerned countries to explore a way though the impasse.  Every month a new president alone takes on the responsibility of finding a breakthrough.  Why is this such a lonely task?  Have members tacitly accepted that the CD’s usefulness has come to an end?  After all, 16 years have elapsed since the Conference last fulfilled its mandate as a negotiating body.  If this is not the case, why is there no coordinated activity – sustained across the monthly presidencies – to shore it up? 

The Secretary-General of the Conference, Mr Tokayev, recently proposed the establishment of an informal working group with a mandate to produce a Programme of Work that would lead to negotiations. This idea has struck a chord with a number of member states. It will be interesting to see whether those members actively lobby and meet among themselves - ideally as an informal cross-regional group - to pursue this promising avenue, or whether it is simply left to successive presidents to painstakingly consult on its general acceptability.

Another mysterious aspect of the CD’s malaise is this.  Strong statements are made regularly by members of the Conference about the need to negotiate on the topic to which they attach priority.  The trial of strength over which of the core issues is “ripest” for negotiation amounts to a direct clash of political wills. The result is that there is no agreement on anything. The consensus needed for the Programme of Work and the conduct of negotiations is altogether absent.

Why is this so strange?  Well, take the case of a fissile material negotiation, or “fissban”.  The principal proponents of this issue profess to being frustrated by their inability to re-launch the negotiation that began and prematurely ended in 1998 and has never been resumed.  But what is stopping them from rallying their supporters and conducting a sustained debate in Plenary, focused ideally on a working paper containing a framework or elements of an eventual treaty?  They don’t need a Programme of Work for such an initiative – under the Rules, working in Plenary is the CD’s default option (Rule 18).

Assuming such discussions gather momentum in Plenary and build up the necessary trust along the way, a negotiating mandate will in due course be needed to intensify the work.  And time will have to be allocated to the working group in which the negotiations would be conducted.  So procedural hurdles would still remain.  The CD would, however, have rediscovered the will to work which is currently absent judged by the lack of initiatives of the kind just described.  This should in itself have a cathartic effect. By the way, a “simplified” Programme of Work (see previous postings on this site) would be the obvious vehicle for making time available for the intensified phase of negotiations just noted (to be pursued alongside other business agreed by the Conference).

Finally, it is interesting to speculate why no state has come forward with any concrete working paper on fissile material negotiations in recent years? Draft treaties were tabled in 2006 and 2009 by the US and by Japan and the Netherlands respectively, while Brazil, Canada and Australia each made proposals in 2010.  But since then, there has been nothing quite as specific apart from the working paper of Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Turkey in June 2011.  The lack of any recent proposal on fissile material  - as a new focus for Plenary debate - is hardly a ringing endorsement of the CD. 

Maybe, as with nuclear disarmament, attention is turning elsewhere. UNOG’s website records that, in advance of the convening in Geneva in 2014 and 2015 of a Group of Government Experts (GGE) on fissile material, 25 states and the EU have recently responded to the UN Secretary-General’s request to submit their views to him on a fissile material ban.  The GGE will proceed on the specific understanding that if the CD meanwhile agrees and implements a programme of Work that includes the negotiation of a fissban, the GGE will cease and any product of its work will be passed on to the CD. 

With very little time left during the current session of the CD for the tabling of concrete proposals on a fissban, let alone a Programme of Work, and in the absence of any member-driven, cross-regional initiative to caucus to overcome the sorry deadlock, these mysteries about getting work underway seem set to remain unsolved.  Yet the solutions aren’t nearly as complicated as the current, discredited efforts to agree fatally-linked, multiple mandates in a single document. Persisting with the latter is the third and most worrisome mystery.

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR

Saturday, 15 June 2013

CD: “Simplified” programme of work

The notion of a “simplified” programme of work is getting increasing airplay in the Conference of Disarmament (CD) these days. (For those unfamiliar with the chronic stalemate in the CD, agreeing a programme of work setting out the priorities of the Conference is a necessary precursor to real engagement in that body.)
It is not surprising that interest in simplifying the annual work programme should be growing.  Since 1999, drafts of the programme have been unnecessarily laden with mandates that have defied the consensus required for their adoption except in 2009 when there was an-all-too short-lived breakthrough (CD/1864). Mandates included in draft work programmes since 1999 are to begin real work on up to four “core” priorities dealing with nuclear disarmament, fissile material, outer space and security assurances.
The Rules of Procedure, as well as CD/1036 (a decision on the “Improved and Effective Functioning” of the Conference adopted on 21 August 1990), envisage a streamlined approach whereby the programme of work would be no more than a mere schedule of business rather than an overarching mandate or mandates for beginning to elaborate a treaty or memorandum of understanding on one or more of the core issues.
Decision CD/1036 led to the current rule on the work programme, rule 28, with its emphasis on establishing rather than adopting. This is not a matter of semantics. It means that having established through his or her consultations that no reasonable objection exists to the schedule of business for the year, the CD president would get work underway without a formal decision. In theory at least, the work programme, shorn of mandates, would be so simple as not to require a formal, consensus decision of the Conference.
Things haven’t panned out as envisaged.  Mandates on the 4 core issues have become inseparably linked, and worse, they have been embodied unnecessarily in draft work programmes. These linkages aren’t accidental.  They are deliberate.  Therefore they can be broken. A simplified programme of work might help in that regard.
What would a simplified programme look like? This column has been offering ideas since 2009 – see list below – and suggested a possible format in 2011.  Boiled right down, a simplified approach would have these features:
1. There would be an allocation of time to be spent during the annual session on each of the 4 core issues and other substantive agenda items.  That timetable would also allocate space for the annual high-level segment and for agreeing the CD’s report to the UN General Assembly.  In addition, it would reserve time for discussion of the outcomes of the second feature of the programme.
2. Within the allocation of time for each of the core issues, the central matter for CD members to resolve would be: under rule 23 of the Rules of Procedure, is there a need to establish a subsidiary body in which engagement would be intensified? That is, does a basis exist for the negotiation of “a draft treaty or other draft texts”?  Note that a subsidiary body is generally regarded as being more appropriate for facilitating intense engagement than the comparatively stilted, formal option of conducting work in plenary, although under the Rules, plenary meetings are the default option and would be the venue for fulfilling this part of the simplified work programme.
3. As when and if the questions arising under rule 23 are answered in the affirmative, members would immediately apportion time from the reserved allocation (see 1. above) for the negotiation of the necessary mandate. Mandates would evolve independently of each other.
4. Agreement on the negotiated mandates would require consensus.  Decisions on mandates would take place singly rather than collectively, unless otherwise agreed (by consensus)(see further below).  Agreement on individual mandates is most unlikely to be achieved simultaneously.  The timetable would need to be flexible enough to deal with that reality.
In weighing the pros and cons of this simplified approach, the following key considerations arise:
- Does this approach involve bending the Rules of Procedure? No, it entails applying them more faithfully.
- Will the mandates that have been refined and embodied in successive draft programmes of work since 1999 remain on the table? Yes, of course, but they will be examined one-by-one, and judged on their individual merits rather than as a package of four.
- What is the main advantage of this approach? It will help members to gauge issue-by-issue whether there really exists a will to begin serious work on each priority and, if so, their readiness to compromise on the ingredients of the mandate that will be required.  This may assist in recalibrating the 4 priorities, for example, in downgrading the push for security assurances, an issue whose need may have subsided marginally relative to the other 3 issues.  And by considering each issue on its own merits, members should be able to weigh more acutely the CD’s capacity to make progress on elaborating more than one “draft treaty or other draft texts” at a time.
- Will treating the mandates one-by-one guarantee that linkages among them are avoided? No, but any attempt to forge linkages will necessarily be more transparent.  Linkages may be needed, for instance, in developing a framework of issues as a compromise solution to the standoff over fissile material and nuclear disarmament.  Or there may need to be an understanding over the sequence of treatment of core issues to ensure that none is unacceptably overwhelmed by intensifying work on others.  Members protecting their interests in such a way on a given issue will necessarily do so openly on the record of the CD. 
The key difference from the present situation is that work on the mandates will be taking place under an agreed work programme, albeit a simplified one. The clock will actually be running. Members will no longer be wringing their hands waiting for the president to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Tim Caughley, Resident Senior Fellow, UNIDIR