Tag: norms

Making the Real: The Interplay of Reasons, Rhetoric, Evidence, and Action

This guest post is by Joseph O’Mahoney, currently a Stanton Fellow at MIT and an Assistant Professor in Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

In the US, support for President Donald Trump’s executive order, which restricts travel to the US by citizens of seven Muslim majority countries, has been mixed. Perhaps surprisingly, the Islamic State or ISIS is wildly in favor of the so-called “Muslim ban.”. Postings to pro-ISIS social media accounts called the proposed order a “blessed ban” and hailed Trump as “the best caller to Islam”. Why? Because it “clearly revealed the truth and harsh reality behind the American government’s hatred toward Muslims”. General Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA, is worried that the ban makes the claim that “there is undying enmity between Islam and the West” more believable to “Muslims out there who are not part of the jihadist movement”. By contrast, a visibly compassionate and welcoming response to Syrian refugees by Western countries “has been incredibly damaging to this jihadist narrative”. Continue reading

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Dispatch from Hong Kong: Asian Values?

This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes. Jarrod is Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. He received his PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, he was the ConocoPhillips Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Oklahoma, a joint appointment between the Department of Political Science and the School of International and Area Studies.

Last week, my wife and I were hiking with a local day hiking group in Hong Kong.  We were discussing Hong Kong’s pollution and the surprising fact that recycling does not appear to be a priority here.  One of the women, an Australian expat who has been in Hong Kong for a number of years, made the observation that it is difficult to get the citizens of Hong Kong and Chinese generally to act for the sake of the community.  I was immediately struck by the comment.  Specifically, it brought to mind the ‘Asian Values’ argument—part of which argues that Asian societies value the community over the individual—that had a high profile in the 1990s and continues to pop up with varying degrees of frequency.

Usually (almost always?) the argument is deployed by China and other authoritarian states in the region to justify the denial of individual rights.  I had always assumed there was probably something to the argument, if for no other reason than I did not want to be guilty of cultural imperialism.  But the expat’s comment gave me reason to reflect on the last six months or so that my wife and I have spent in East and Southeast Asia.  In doing so I have found there does not seem to be much evidence to support the ‘Asian Values’ claim.  Certainly economic norms are as individualistic as they are in the West, perhaps even more so.  It seems to me that the major cities of East and Southeast Asia have come close to perfecting consumerist capitalism  (or are working hard at it), with its emphasis on the needs and wants of the individual.  The social safety nets (i.e. community oriented economic provisions) here are also minimal, as the widespread and active panhandling in Chinese cities suggests.  In terms of economic norms, individualism rules the day.

Continue reading

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In Weapons Advocacy as in Health, Prevention is Better Than Cure

A heavily attended side-event today was the Norwegian Red Cross‘ panel discussion “Looking Back to Look Forward: The Cluster Munitions Convention and What it Means for Limiting the Impact of Other Weapons Systems.”

Richard Moyes, coordinator of the International Network Against Explosive Weapons, presented a compelling address about the importance of regulating the use of explosives in populated areas, and putting the burden of proof on states to document the humanitarian costs of the weapons they use in conflict zones. University of Sheffield’s Noel Sharkey presented on the dangers of trends toward increasingly autonomous weaponry. And Peter Herby, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Arms Unit, had a clear message for delegates and NGOs that tied together these specific calls for action: states need to do more to properly review the humanitarian acceptability of weapons – cyber-weapons, non-lethal incapacitants, autonomous weapons, nano-weapons, bio-weapons and others – before they are widely deployed.

States have long been required to do so under Article 36 of the first 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, but according to Herby as few as 12 signatory governments have established mechanisms for actually reviewing new weapons before they are deployed. And nor is there any independent body responsible for overseeing those reviews, as exists other areas of global governance. More typically, weapons development proceeds apace until some outcry from civil society, as is now beginning to happen in the case of autonomous weapons.

But this outcry is often too slow in coming: civil society has historically been likelier to condemn weapons already in widespread use than new weapons whose effects are uncertain. The reason is simple: it’s much easier to conduct ‘remedial’ campaigns on issues where widespread humanitarian harms have already been documented, as a combination of testimonial and statistical evidence of a problem is often a prerequisite for creating a sense of urgency around an issue. Thus campaigns against landmines, cluster munitions, incendiaries and explosive violence have emerged in recent years only after decades of mounting and evident civilian harms.

Nonetheless, as Herby emphasized today, “prevention is better than a cure.” And as he pointed out, pre-emptive bans are not unheard of nor necessarily infeasible: two important examples are the ban on exploding bullets promulgated by Russia in the nineteenth century at the behest of military specialists; and the ban on blinding lasers negotiated in 1995, before the widespread deployment of these weapons. In the case of nuclear weapons in particular, Herby said:

“The only option is prevention. This is an area in which we need to make efforts because remediation will be too late.”

Richard Moyes of Article36.org, an NGO dedicated to humanitarian disarmament, echoed Herby’s sentiments regarding nuclear weapons in a response to an ICAN representative’s query on how to move forward to a nuclear ban:

“You can feel a sense of momentum already in that direction, a fairly clear concept of a treaty prohibition on nuclear weapons is starting to take holds in a number of people’s minds. I think we can take confidence from the CCM that we can learn from communities that worked together on that. And I think we can learn from the overall standard-setting initiatives here as well, that we need to take it into our own hands to establish the standards we want to see in the world, not sit beholden to those who hold over our heads weapons capable of killing thousands of people in an unacceptable way. We as a community can start to address that, states without nuclear weapons can start to address that, we don’t need to wait to have nuclear armed states on board to articulate a treaty prohibition on these weapons. We need to make clear those weapons of mass destruction need to go the same way as chemical and biological weapons, landmines and clusters, subject to a straightforward prohibition on their use, stockpiling and production.”

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Emerging Technologies, Material and Social

Recording Casualties and the Protection of Civilians from Oxford Research Group (ORG) on Vimeo.

As the lone social scientist in a room of lawyers, philosophers and technicians last week, I was struck by a couple of things. One was the disconnect between descriptive and normative ethics, or rather questions of is versus ought. Everyone was speaking about either norms and rules, but whereas the lawyers treated existing norms and rules as social facts the philosophers treated them as questions of ethics that could and should be altered if necessary on their ethical merit. Another was the disconnect between material and social technologies. Engineers in the room seemed especially likely to assume that material technology itself evolved independent of social facts like laws, ethical debates, or architectures of governance, though they disagreed about whether this was for better or worse.
I suspect, to the contrary, that there is an important relationship between all three that bears closer investigation. To give an example, an important thread seemed to unite the discussion despite inevitable interdisciplinary tensions: that both material technologies (like weaponry or cyber-architecture) and social technologies (like international laws) should evolve or change to suit the demands of human security. That is, the protection of vulnerable non-combatants should be a priority in considerations of the value of these technologies. Even those arguing for the value of lethal autonomous robots made the case on these terms, rather than national security grounds alone.

Yet it bears pointing out (as I think the video above does quite well) how difficult that very factor is to measure.
How do we know whether a particular rule or law or practice has a net benefit to vulnerable civilians? How does one test the hypothesis, for example, that autonomous weapons can improve on human soldiers’ track record of civilian protection, without a clear baseline of what that track record is? Knowing requires both material technologies (like databases, forensics, and recording equipment) and social technologies (like interviewing skills and political will).

And make no mistake: the baselines are far from clear because our social technologies on casualty counting are lacking, because nothing in the existing rules of war requires record-keeping of war casualties, efforts to do so are patchy and non-comparable, and the results are data that map poorly onto the legal obligations of parties to armed conflict. Hence, an important emerging social technology would be efforts to standardize casualty reporting worldwide. Indeed such social technologies are already under development, as the presentation from the Oxford Research Group exemplifies. Such a governance architecture would be a logical complement to emerging material technologies whose raison d’etre is predicated on improving baseline compliance with the laws of war. In fact without them I wonder if the debate about the effects of material technologies on war law compliance can really proceed in the realm of descriptive ethics or must remain purely in the realm of the philosophical.

Anyway. These kinds of “emerging social technologies” or what scholars like me might call “norm-building efforts” received relatively little consideration at the workshop, which was focused primarily on the relationship between emerging material technologies (robotics, cyberspace, non-lethals, human augmentation) to existing governance architecture (e.g. the law of armed conflict). But I think – and will probably write more on this question presently – that an important question is how emerging material technologies can expose gaps and irregularities in social technologies of governance, catalyze shifts in norms, as well as (possibly) strengthen enforcement and adherence to those norms themselves if put to good use.

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Is the “Women and Children First” Norm a Myth?

In commemoration of the Titanic disaster, researchers at Uppsala University have released a report analyzing the evolution and impact of the “women and children first” rule guiding evacuations from sinking ships. They examined 18 historical cases of peace-time maritime disasters involving passenger ships and concluded:

Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared to men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. We also find that the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior, that the gender gap in survival rates has declined, that women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks, and that there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms.

The Global Post reports, thus, that “the women and children rule is a myth.” If valid, this finding would be interesting on a number of levels, not least because perceptions that this norm exists are so strong many people were surprised to learn it it not actually inscribed in maritime law after the sinking of the Costa Concordia in January. It would also correspond with data from air disasters, which shows that being male drastically increases one’s likelihood of survival.

However, there are problems with this interpretation. One is that the sample is non-random and suffers from missing data. This is beyond the authors’ control of course, but eighteen cases is too few to conduct a meaningful regression analysis… particularly with a non-random sample and particularly if you are attempting to generalize to a wider set of cases. A research method designed for medium-N cases (like fuzzy-set QCA) is probably more appropriate.

The descriptive statistics themselves are certainly interesting. But I’m also concerned about the coding: it seems that particularly in investigating the role of captains in enforcing a “WCF” rule (as opposed to the rule having an internalized influence over male crew-members and passengers), the authors would have needed to distinguish between wrecks where the order was given and enforced (eg the Titanic), versus where it was given but not enforced (the SS Arctic) as opposed to the many wrecks where it was apparently not given at all. Yet it appears that a ship gets the “WCF” code in either case, which is why the Arctic is considered one of the five exemplary wrecks even though not a single woman or child survived… meanwhile presumably if there were any cases of internalized normative conduct in evacuations not mandated by the captain (that is, where the norm had become internalized so that the crew followed it automatically without an order), it would not be reflected in the coding.

So while the evidence of the gender gap in survival rates is clear and striking, I think it’s hard to actually determine whether and how norm-based behavior affected this, other than to say that in the presence of a norm we would have expected to see more women and children to survive. In sum, the “myth” documented here is not that such a norm “exists” but rather that it has the effect we have been taught to think it does. Another good reason not to make generalized arguments on the basis of single case studies: they may turn out to be outliers.

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RIP: Habeas Corpus . . . and Normative Power

The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a sad day for those who believe in basic civil and human rights. Equally, this move calls into question optimistic views about international norms and the power of human rights.

Glenn Greenwald and others cover the threat to basic freedoms in posts that are well worth reading. By comparison, the import for scholars of norms may seem minor but is nonetheless worth pondering.

Norms against indefinite detention have long been basic to human rights, along with prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution. Of course, we’ve seen those fall by the wayside too. National security, a norm backed by enormous material power, has made its dominance plain. However, in recent cases where the U.S. has engaged in torture or extrajudicial executions of American citizens, these actions have been purely executive, albeit with many a legislative, scholarly, and public cheerleader.

The NDAA, however, enshrines indefinite detention for American citizens in law passed by Congress and to be signed by the President. The magical incantation “terrorist” is all that’s been needed to throttle a core rights protection.

What has been the power of norms in this case?

It’s doubtless true that the human rights norms I’ve mentioned have more defenders than they once did. There are today many more NGOs who promote and support them than there were in the 1950s, the last time the U.S. passed similar laws (against the Communist menace, only to reverse them decades later after severe abuses). Today, there have been many voices, both domestic and international, raised against the indefinite detention provisions.

But in the end, these fell before trumped up security norms and terror fears. Many Americans appear all too willing to trade basic rights (and trillions of dollars) for an illusion of security against a minuscule threat. I am continually stunned when I hear American citizens saying we don’t need a judiciary to check the Executive in these cases because the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. So much for the judicial branch, so much for checks and balances, and so much for the power of centuries old domestic norms and laws.

Particularly striking in the debate over detention and the broader one over Obama’s civil liberties record is political opportunism. Many Democratic Party leaders who screamed that George Bush was acting unconstitutionally and illegally in the early years of the GWOT, have now fallen into line behind Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush policies, including extrajudicial executions and now summary arrests. It’s striking too that we have seen so few resignations from top posts in the Obama administration even from those regarded as staunch defenders of basic rights. So much for the independent influence of norms.

More broadly, this suggests that other human rights norms are equally fragile and contingent achievements, with little if any independent strength. Of course, anyone witnessing the erosion of these rights over the last decade already knew that. All such norms exist at sufferance of state actors. To the extent states follow them, it is because the “norms” do not run contrary to their core interests, because a sufficiently large threat has not been invented to justify their subversion, or because the states are too weak to challenge them. Any real belief in state “habitualization” and the power of norms as such must be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to promote and resurrect the crucial values and freedoms we have lost. But the only way to do so is through political organizing and activism–through material rather than normative means.

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Observations on Traffic Safety From Indonesia

A few days ago this startling report hit the newsstands in Jakarta, proclaiming Bali to have surpassed Phuket in highway “carnage”:

Bali’s roads have become the scene of unprecedented carnage, with 758 people dying in traffic accidents in just three months, 200 more fatalities than all of last year, police said on Friday. An average of more than eight people a day died on the resort island’s roads in March, April and May…May was the deadliest month, with 286 deaths and 360 injuries, followed by March with 248 dead and 302 injured. The death toll in April was 224, with another 281 injured.

I can’t comment on the validity of the numbers but if true then per capita (Bali’s population now stands at about 4 million) that is about seven times the US traffic fatality rate for 2009.

Traveling around the island, I could see why. I found it remarkable that we didn’t witness at least one deadly wreck during our days there. In the country-side, drivers sped along curvy, one-lane roads with abandond, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. In Kuta, the traffic was intense and chaotic, a dizzying writhing snake of taxis, cars packed in nearly bumper to bumper with three times as many mopeds maneuvering neck and neck, lane to lane.

Few scooters carried helmeted riders, even fewer outsie the city. Those that did usually carried at least one un-helmeted toddler as well, napping unsecured on the handlebars ready to slide off any moment; or a five-year-old on the back, gripping the seat with his legs while using his hands to text on a mobile phone. The mopeds move lithely in between the cars; no rules exist about minimum safe distance. Our taxi once swiped a motorcyclist as it passed us; the rider simply shrugged off the impact and carried on. Meanwhile, our driver had a television documentary playing on his screen in the front of the car.

When we had to ride in cars – from Jimbaron Bay to Kuta, to Yeh Gangga Village for a horse trek, or Sanur Beach for kite-surfing lessons – I distracted myself from the expectation of an imminent accident by thinking and asking about the emergent order in this seeming chaos. What were the rules? Why weren’t they being followed? How did motorists manage to get by in the chaos?

Cultural explanations aside, the Indonesian government is actually rather concerned about traffic safety and has made efforts to tighten strictures since 2007: helmets are in fact required, and you’re not supposed to cross the solid line. But new rules are rarely enforced. Indeed when Jakarta (where traffic is far worse than Bali: one expat described a six-hour cab ride three miles from the military academy to the US embassy) – first implemented the new rules on turning right at red lights (Indonesia uses the British system) motorists nearly revolted in opposition to the tickets.

Perhaps this is because the government is aiming to alter the laws, rather than the architecture – which as Lawrence Lessig would tell anyone, is rarely the best way to encourage social change. For example, an acquaintaince I spoke with described one effort centered on reducing traffic by creating carpool lanes. However no effort was made to provide additional public transportation for the people who were presumably not going to be on the roads. Nor did authorities actually build new lanes but rather simply created a rule stating that any car in the left lane with fewer than three people would receive a ticket. So in theory this would have simply increased congestion in the non-carpool lane. In practice, what it did was encourage motorists to increasingly drive on sidewalks, and to create a new industry: individuals who hang out by the carpool lane and jump into cars for a fee in order to enable them to use the lane lawfully.

In Bali, at least, social norms appeared to govern traffic flows more than legal rules – leaving one observer to describe traffic there as “zen chaos”:

Being an active participant in Bali traffic is quite an illuminating experience, by no means limited to complex vehicular dynamics. It is a social and cultural phenomenon as well, not to mention a crash course in logistics, strategic planning, tactical implementation and group psychology…. One can contemplate the fluid chaos around one’s bike while interacting with it. Staying alive is always such a good motivator, too.

I’ve learned some simple rules to help me survive so far. Treat all turns as merges. Think zipper. Treat all intersections as the merging of two traffic streams at right angles. Give way only to those you are about to hit, or are about to hit you. Travel at the speed of the surrounding traffic. Drive in a bubble, concerning yourself only with the people in front and to the sides. The ones behind can take care of themselves. Assume that anyone joining traffic from left or right kerbs will not look before accelerating. Above all, follow the medicos’ creed: “First, do no harm”. It doesn’t reduce the chaos, but it does make it a little more bearable.

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