Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Forum – Thoughts from New York Part I

New York City is a tense place at the best of times.  Coffee may be its drink of choice, but the average New Yorker would benefit greatly from less caffeine in his or her diet rather than the buckets of Joe they consume each day in their ubiquitous travel mugs.  But as I dodged in and out of various anxious-looking people hurrying to wherever anxious people go on a chilly Sunday morning, I could have done with an espresso myself.

The reason I was stumbling through the streets of New York was to participate in the Humanitarian Disarmament Campaigns Forum as a representative of SCRAP.

The previous evening I had attended a dinner hosted by the organizers, Article 36 and IKV Pax Christi, and somewhere between dessert and walking to the UN Church Center for day two of the Forum I’d missed a lot of sleep.  Blessedly, there was coffee at the Church Center and a lot of other people in similar pre-caffeinated stupors.

Day one of the Forum had been an intense round of small group discussions, which I found useful for learning about effective campaign methods, the power and pitfalls of collaborating with other NGOs and diplomats, and re-framing issues to hustle them onto the UN agenda.  However, the format of the second day was to be quite different.  Instead of a simple exchange of experiences and lessons learned, the organizers had planned a campaign simulation.

The participants were divided into nine teams – campaign strategy, policy development, media planning, film-making, research, fund-raising, the arms industry, core-countries, and weasel states – and tasked with producing ideas and plans for a fictional campaign set in the year 2023 against “directed-energy weapons” (a.k.a DEW, which is an actual weapon system that behaves like a large microwave heat ray, though to date it has only seen limited use by the US military to terrorize journalists from Wired magazine).  To assist their work, participants were given made-up information on the weapon’s development, production, use, and possessors, as well as shown a video of a fake news report on a DEW accident.

As a relative newcomer to the world of civil society action, I was quite apprehensive about jumping into a group of seasoned NGO representatives.  But luckily I was assigned to a team perfect for my background – weasel states.  The term “weasel states” has come to refer to any state that obstructs progress on an international issue.  It recently entered into common disarmament parlance via the influence of the irreverent disarmament agitators at “Wildfire>_”, who use it to describe non-nuclear weapon states that comfortably benefit from nuclear weapons, such as NATO countries and the other umbrella dwellers.  With my years of experience working for a government delegation in Geneva, I was uniquely positioned to offer insights into tactics and other forms of bastardry for blocking efforts to restrict or ban certain armaments.

As the weasel states, it was our role to undermine the activities of the campaigners and core countries and to coordinate with the arms industry.  The weasels benefited from the presence in its team of Stephen Goose, whom as one of the founders of the ICBL had dealt with many ploys to scuttle or impede the process in the 1990s to establish the Mine Ban Treaty.  With his help we developed a comprehensive strategy that was designed to prevent the issue of DEW from even being discussed at the international level.  This included intimidating core countries against supporting any meaningful action by highlighting that a ban or restrictions would have an impact on bilateral relations and military alliances, as well as economic consequences.  Along with threats, we also put forward other less bullying tactics, such as collaborating with friendly NGOs; working with the arms industry to establish an ‘independent’ research institute to counter negative publicity; and engaging with journalists to generate positive news reports on DEW.  Finally, if all efforts to block discussions failed and a response was required, we proposed as a big concession the drafting of an international political declaration on the use of DEW that would emphasize the need for states to comply with existing international laws.  After three hours of working in our teams, we were required to nominate a spokesperson and show what we had come up with to the forum in the form of a statement to a mock international conference and a presentation on our plans and strategies.

All in all, as a weasel state the simulation was a fun exercise because it gave me the opportunity to release my inner Machiavelli.  However, the real value of the simulation lay in observing many of the lessons discussed the previous day placed within a campaign framework.  On the flip side, though, it lacked a certain level of depth.  For the purpose of the simulation it may have been necessary to give the weasel states the semblance of being a single coherent unit, but in all actuality such groups are rarely in total agreement.

Broad coalitions of states frequently come together to tackle single issues, but it needs to be kept in mind that they are still driven by national agendas, and it is difficult to maintain a level of commitment to a common goal when interests diverge.  Moreover, in national governments tension is common between the political and bureaucratic leadership over the direction of policy, and disagreement can occur even within departments themselves.  Indeed, what is presented as a state’s official position is usually the product of sometimes fierce inter-departmental debate.  These divisions open opportunities to weaken groups of weasel states and prevent their influence from halting momentum towards making progress on problems of humanitarian concern. As we learned in the group discussions from day one, the right government official in the right place at the right time can bring about dramatic changes in a country’s stance.

One example is how Japan went from siding with the United States during the Mine Ban Treaty negotiations in September 1997 to breaking that relationship by signing the Mine Ban Treaty in December 1997.  Japan’s then-Foreign Minister, Keizo Obuchi (and later Prime Minister), made the bold decision to sign the treaty despite strong opposition from Japan’s own Ministry of Defence and the United States.  With the alignment of savvy advocacy work, public concern, and assertive political leadership, weasel states are just as prone to defection as core countries.  Therefore, it is important to not only build personal relations with the diplomat in the conference room, but also the government official back in capital.  It is a shame therefore that the simulation was unable to explore these dynamics within the campaign process (though, I am at a loss as to how the organizers could have simulated this aspect).

While I moan about the shortcomings of the simulation, possibly unfairly, it was overall an interesting and useful exercise, placing the discussions of the previous day into the context of a campaign and making clear how information can be favourably employed in the treaty-making process.  The other groups presented their own strategies, and many a good idea and observation was raised for scrutiny by the audience.  At the end, once photos were taken, business cards exchanged, and promises of future collaboration pledged, the participants all dripped out into the street and drained away back to wherever they came.  For me, I only had two things on my mind, the re-commencement of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly the next day and where I could find a strong black coffee in Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon.

I would like to thank Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch for her input and corrections to my original post on this blog.

by Fabian Rutherford (SCRAP Advisory Committee member)

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