Archive | May, 2016

Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies

31 May

There was an arresting comment at the Alliance for Peace/United States Institute for Peace conference last week: “Neuroscientists are the new rock stars of peace studies”. It was made by a leading figure in a US policy and practice organization. As such, it is important. A number of people suggested that if this person deems this topic important then other people, organizations and resources will follow. The herd leader has spoken. The herd will follow.

Basically, advances in neuroscience are suggesting that the impetus for violence is often chemical-biological and there are interventions (basically peace drugs) that can – in some circumstances – deter individuals from violent acts. I won’t pretend to have expertise on the science, but my sceptical antennae were immediately raised by the prospect of administering some sort of ‘peace serum’ to the pro-government militias in Sudan who are engaged in extreme violence against civilians.

Maybe such drugs would work, but it seems just too simple. For a start it – yet again – locates the ‘solution’ to the world’s problems among the technologically advanced peoples of the global north – where the largest pharmaceutical companies are based. The idea of a peace drug replaces the white saviour complex with a chemists in white coats complex. Secondly, if private pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from the development of peace drugs then what are the ethical restraints on them gaming the system – fomenting conflict in order to magically appear on the sidelines to offer their pacific (and profitable) services?

Thirdly, the idea of peace drugs shifts attention away from all of those contextual socio-economic factors that cause and sustain violent conflict: unequal trading relationships, global capital that moves without responsibility, national and international elites who are spectacularly corrupt and exploitative. To concentrate on peace drugs risks taking attention away from the structural issues that often implicate us in the global north in the political economies of war and peace. Fourthly, can these drugs differentiate between the precipitants of actual violence (imminent direct violence) and support for violence by others? It is not only the violent actors (individuals and members of militaries) who are responsible for violence but also the long chain of enablers that includes arms manufacturers, politicians, and voters. To put it bluntly, would a peace drug administered to Tony Blair in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq have helped to avert the tens of thousands of deaths he is responsible for?

And then there are a range of practical and ethical questions about who would have access to these drugs, who would administer them, what level of consent would be involved, who would make the bio-ethical decisions (clinicians or judges or politicians or military actors) ….?

So there is an endless list of questions, but I get the impression that some of those who would consider themselves to be connected to peace studies are about to go off on a wild goose chase. Every dollar and hour invested in that is a dollar and hour not invested in thinking about poverty, inequality, the arms trade, militarism, bad choices by political leaders …


The other WWII

23 May

I have been reading yet another WWII memoir. This one is Fighting through to Kohima: A memoir of war in India and Burma by Michael Lowry. It is a great reminder that WWII was not all about direct confrontations between the British, United States, Russians, Germans and Japanese. WWII as rendered by Hollywood often boils down to brave GIs, dastardly German prison guards, wily U-Boat commanders, beastly Japanese, stiff upper lip Brits and a cannon-fodder Red Army. The highly localised nature of this global war is often overlooked.

There are some good ‘home front’ movies, that do something to redress the massive gender imbalance of representations of WWII, but again these tend to concentrate on the perspectives of the principal Atlanticist players: the UK, France, US, and Germany.

Lowry’s memoir is pretty standard fare of WWII memoirs go. It is largely a-historical and unreflective – a narrative of what happened when he was a young man. But his account of his time in North West India – the border country of present day Afghanistan and Pakistan is startling (to me at any rate) for bringing to the fore a forgotten front. The British fought against a continuous Afghan insurgency in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Most of the casualties were ethnic Indian soldiers of the British Army so received little attention in the UK – this was especially the case since the UK was facing its own existential threat from 1940.

There were some fears that various Afghan tribes would ally themselves with the Germans, but the real motivation behind Afghan tribal militancy was unrelated to WWII. Tribal groups were pushing back against Britain’s unfinished state-making process in greater India. They were jockeying for position (as allies or foes of the British and their local proxies) and seeking to maximise rents.

The parallels with today – and the on-going pacification of Afghanistan – are plain. The text echoes the current anti-Taliban counterinsurgency. The British government had ‘political agents’ in the field. In today’s parlance these are stabilisation officers. There was a mis-match of capabilities – the tribes relied on captured and home-made weaponry – the British and their proxies had artillery and an air force. Not unlike the situation today in which the international coalition have drones, spy-planes and all sorts of hi-tech weaponry at their disposal. The weather matters and has a direct impact on the movement of troops and the timing of offensives. The depictions of how local people live are securitised: ‘Most villages and houses in these tribal areas were strongly built with walls some two feet thick … invariably a village would have a watch tower’. In the modern era were have seen a similar securitisation of Afghan housing – with the Taliban having ‘compounds’ – rather than houses. There were collective punishments and house demolitions. While this has not been a much reported feature of the post-2001 wars in Afghanistan, it is clear that entire villages have been destroyed by the US-led coalition.

Lowry’s book is a good reminder that WWII contained multiple insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. It was not all set-piece battles between the principal actors. Modern day Ukraine, Indonesia, Iran, Burma and many other places saw apparently local disputes become part of a much wider conflict. These tend to have been written out of the dominant histories of WWII.

A podcast interview with me talking about Writing About Violence

14 May

A podcast interview with me talking about Writing About Violence From 19 minutes and 35 seconds you can hear an interview with me talking about Writing About Violence. It was recorded after I gave a talk on that topic at Kings College London.


The UUP – a big apology

13 May

In a blog post earlier this week I wrote about the possibility of the mid-size parties in Northern Ireland doing something brave and courageous: stepping outside of their guaranteed cabinet positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly and becoming opposition parties. I forecast that none of the mid-sizd parties (the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party) would have the bravery to do this. But, lo and behold, the UUP have decided to become an opposition party. It is a very brave move. It puts pressure on the SDLP and Alliance to justify their stance of propping up a deeply dysfunctional and sectarian Assembly.
I probably disagree with the UUP on most things, but on this issue they have made a very brave decision and Mike Nesbitt has shown leadership.

Northern Ireland – another opportunity to miss an opportunity

9 May

Northern Ireland has just held elections for its powerharing Assembly. The results can be best described as ‘steady as you go’. There were no major shocks, with the two largest parties, (the pro-United Kingdom Democratic Unionists, and the pro-united Ireland Sinn Fein) retaining their hold of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions. Seats were traded here and there, and two seats for the People Before Profit party should make life in the Assembly a little more colourful, but there are no fundamental changes.

That lack of change means that Northern Ireland is condemned to at least five more years of embedded sectarianism and limited scrutiny of a dysfunctional Assembly packed with (at best) mediocre politicians. The Assembly’s primary role will be to administer the austerity agenda of the London-based Conservative government.

There are other mid-sized parties in Northern Ireland: the former largest unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party), the former largest nationalist party (the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the cross-community Alliance Party. These parties had hoped to make breakthroughs in the Assembly elections but that did not happen. The UUP and SDLP were ‘ethnically outbid’ by their in-group rivals the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

The powersharing Assembly uses the complicated d’hondt system to apportion seats in the Assembly Executive or cabinet. Up until this stage, that means that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been joined at the cabinet table by the middle sized parties: the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance. What that means is that everybody is at the table. And no one (apart from the odd independent or micro-party) is left in the Assembly chamber to provide the type of scrutiny and oversight that legislators need. Scrutiny is needed especially given that the already mentioned mediocre calibre of the legislators and the bickering dynamic that is the hallmark of ethnically based parties.

So Northern Ireland is destined for another five years of non-productive nonsense. Electoral participation rates – once the highest in the United Kingdom – have been falling as people realise that the powersharing Assembly talks a lot but delivers very little.

But things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically. But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more seats than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized parties trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation. They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party in particular is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity. It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Clearly the mid-sized parties have different political agendas – especially on constitutional issues. But there is a lot they could agree on, especially in relation to public policy issues. By working together, they could form an effective scrutinising bloc that could make life difficult for the two main parties, and suggest that a new type of politics is possible.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance have a chance to be brave. They won’t take it because they want one or two of their members to be Minister for Table Legs.