Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.

Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

The European Gaze and the EISA Asylum Seekers Campaign





A reply to Federica’s recent post on the asylum crisis by Zeynep Gülşah Çapan from Bilkent University and Ayşe Zarakol at the University of Cambridge. Gulsah is a Post-Doctoral researcher at Bilkent University. Her research focuses on Eurocentrism in international relations theory and postcolonial and decolonial thought. Ayşe is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on social hierarchies in world politics. Her first book After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West explored the responses of defeated non-Western powers to stigmatisation.

The increasing attention to the European refugee crisis in Western media has also galvanized the IR academic community into thinking about possible ways to address the issue. There have been blog posts and Twitter discussions (On Doing ‘Something’ as AcademicsWant to Help the Refugees? Teach Migration as part of IRHow to Speak Out As An Academic Community? Help Needed!) about possible actions, especially with respect to the EISA conference that will be held in Sicily in two weeks. On September 11th, EISA section chairs received an email urging them 1) to sign and circulate an open letter to EU policy makers penned in the name of “the academic community”, 2) to bring up the issue in EISA panels and 3) to wear black ribbons/armbands as a sign of mourning and protest.

We applaud the motivations that led to this effort and agree that EU countries could be doing much more to help refugees. We also concur that European scholars could do much more to raise awareness about the complicity of their own governments in various global political crises. Nevertheless, for the reasons detailed below, we have some reservations about both the desire to frame this effort as an EISA effort involving section chairs and the claim to speak in the name of the entire “academic community”. In the blog post Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties that discusses these efforts the author urges the “academic community” to do two things; to check their privilege and make themselves feel uncomfortable. These are suggestions that we completely agree with and this post is an effort to continue the dialogue on how we might think of issues in the international system in a way that checks our privileges and makes us feel uncomfortable.

To begin with, the refugee crisis is not new and it is not primarily a European problem that can be solved by some small gesture from the EU. Most refugees from the Syrian War, for instance, are hosted in non-European countries. According to Amnesty International, more than 95% of the refugees (4 million) are in five countries: Turkey (1.9 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (650000), Egypt (249,463), Iraq (132,375). Another region hosting huge numbers of refugees is East Africa – based on UNHCR’s latest numbers, Chad hosts about 450000 refugees, Ethiopia hosts 650000 and Kenya has 550000. In fact, almost every world region except Europe is hosting hundreds of thousands to millions of refugees and has been doing so for far longer than Western newspapers have been covering “the refugee crisis”. By most estimates, there are sixty million refugees in the world at the moment.

We understand why European colleagues may want to pressure their own governments to change policy and we wholeheartedly support their individual and/or collective efforts to do so. But to organise a professional effort only now (and without providing any of the larger context) in the name of the entire “academic community”  may actually reinforce the Western public misperception that this is a recent or a uniquely European problem or that European countries that have agreed to take comparatively small numbers of refugees are doing something unusually selfless. Continue reading

‘Quality Assessment’ and ‘Student Outcomes’: An Open Letter

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on HEFCE’s Quality Assessment consultation. This post elaborates the reasons why using student outcomes data to assess educational quality is unacceptable, in the form of an open letter that all academic colleagues are invited to sign. To do so, just add your name, title and institutional affiliation in the comments.

UPDATE 23.09.15: UUK has just circulated their response to HEFCE, which endorses the use of student outcomes data, making this letter all the more urgent and necessary. They write:

We agree that a core set of quantitative student outcome metrics should be included in institutional reporting. These should be the benchmarked UK performance indicator set, covering retention, widening participation, 6 months destination of leavers from higher education, plus relevant benchmarked results from the national student survey, primarily question 22 ‘overall satisfaction with course’…

*    *    *

To: HEFCE and Universities UK

We are university educators who are deeply disturbed by the proposed use of ‘student outcomes’ metrics as proxy measures of teaching quality in HEFCE’s proposed new ‘quality assessment’ regime and the mooted ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. We call upon HEFCE to reject, and upon UUK to campaign vociferously against, this use.

The use of ‘student outcomes’ to measure teaching quality is completely inappropriate for the following reasons. Continue reading

‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Amid all the talk of a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF), a consultation on Quality Assessment (QA) launched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on behalf of all UK funding councils has received considerably less attention. But academics, students and others should be paying close attention because HEFCE’s proposals are clearly intended both to soften up the sector for the TEF and – more importantly – spur its hitherto partial marketisation.

I have written a response to the consultation, with very useful input from Meera and from John Holmwood, cofounder of the Campaign for the Public University. You can read the full thing here (it is signed by 50+ other academics). There is still a little time to associate yourself with the document if you wish (email me directly by 18 September). Below I highlight the core points, and in a follow-up post I also provide an open letter that colleagues can sign to oppose the worst aspects of these plans, which are also likely to be reflected in the proposals for a TEF, expected later this autumn.

Continue reading

The Status of Syrian Nationals Residing in Turkey



I have written this blog post about three weeks ago and have been sitting on it, reflecting about it since then, I was not sure if I wanted to write yet another piece on the “Syrian refugees”. But yesterday, we all woke up to the images of two young children lying on the beach lifeless around Bodrum, Turkey, and having read some of the posts available, I felt the need to post this. This is not a happy or “cool” post. This is a post about dire conditions and technicalities on the status of Syrian nationals living in Turkey, and it should be seen as a plea for assistance, and action.

The children in the pictures were Aylan Kurdi, 3 years old, and his brother Galip Kurdi 5, who drowned along with their mother Rehan Kurdi, on their way to Kos, Greece. They were from Kobane, trying the irregular route after their application for private sponsorship was refused by the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and presumably the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada this summer.

As an expectant father, and a human being, those pictures are too brutally heartbreaking for me. They are too real, yet unfortunately they are not exceptional or extraordinary. I was unable to look at the pictures for more than a second, and I don’t think I can ever get to share them or look at them again. Elsewhere on the Visual Cultures Blog, @MarcoBohr makes the point on how we can only confront the inhumanity of the situation by confronting such pictures directly, but I just can’t get myself to look at them again, so I am not posting them or really talking about them in this post. Instead, I look at some of the reasons (structural, institutional, situational) that pushes people to seek such a risky route out of Turkey. The images, in tandem with all those individuals dying in the Mediterranean, en route to Europe, represents a moral/humanitarian crisis and demonstrates the hollowness of the so-called “normative power Europe.” The European Union, US, Canada, Australia, and every other capable country – including the Middle Eastern countries – must be ashamed of their actions, or the lack thereof, in addressing this crisis. As scholars, individuals, and human beings we must not just read about these deaths, we must whatever we can stop others from dying the same way. 

Continue reading

Knowing Like A Jinetera

The last commentary post in our forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love, following contributions from Megan herself, Rahul, Dunja Fehimovic and Nivi. Megan’s rejoinder will be up imminently.

Visit Cuba Poster

So near and yet so foreign! declares the advert. Intimate and exotic, Cuba as a repository for fantasy and self-discovery, the neighbour with the mixed-race charms, the imagined nation Cindy Weber once analysed so relentlessly as “the near colony and certain feminine complement” of the United States. Megan’s new, and first, book – From Cuba With Love – exposes the same kind of dynamic, although from a different standpoint.[1] Hers is a near-seamless blend of reportage and feminist IR, moving from autobiography to testimony to political theory, translating from events on the Malecón (the long waterside promenade in Havana dubbed “Cuba’s great sofa”) to the masculine histories of the Cuban state and back again. It is also – for those seduced by such things – a book beautiful to look at, and to hold (which is a way of saying that you should buy a hard copy). It is a book about evasion, repression and muddled motives, but is itself a model of generosity and clarity.

The central figure throughout is the ‘jinetera’, superficially close to the idea of a ‘prostitute’ but evidently much more ambiguous in definition and shifting in practice. As Megan explains, the term ‘jinetera’ and the general practice ‘jineterismo’ are plays on ‘jockeying’, meaning to manoeuvre for advantage and also to have sex, both connotations clearly playful, if also risky (see the previous posts in the forum for more discussion on the meaning and forms of jineterismo).[2] It is with a curiosity about jineterismo that Megan starts. But where we end up is inside an indispensable guide to the ‘sexual-affective economy’, a bold innovation in disciplinary writing, and a testament to the difference gender analysis makes in studying the global political.

From Cuba With Love does what a certain kind of post-structural feminist IR does best, dissecting the identities created by, and in, a concrete historical system. Not the narrow ‘identity politics’ critics abhor, but identity as the fullness of lived experience shot through with power, subjectivities which are at once deeply personal (love, hope, desire, sex) and interwoven with the most brute forms of political violence (the state, the prison camp, the rehabilitation centre, the police system, imperialism and resistance, exclusion and poverty). It is a study that is undeniably ‘global’ in its scope, even about inter-national relations in a rather precise sense, given how often the admixture of sex and money circles the desires of the (usually) western male for a ‘local’ rendezvous, and how implicated notions of race, nation, difference, rivalry, trade, progress, savagery, miscegenation, and geopolitical virility are in that. A kind of diplomacy, even. This is an encounter with ‘the Other’, and a negotiation of the foreign, in its most visceral possible form. Or, as one key informant more bluntly puts it:

It’s different if one goes to bed with a foreigner, or a mountain of foreigners…Do we have to carry such chauvinistic patriotism with us in our pussies too? Is it obligatory to make use of a mambí dick? Or are they trying to avoid alienating penetrations?

Yet From Cuba With Love is not just a great success on those terms. It is also in many ways the stand-out example of ‘narrative IR’, that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves). Continue reading

The ‘Affectual’ Jockeys of Havana

The fourth post in our mini-forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love.

Megan Daigle’s from Cuba with Love: sex and money in the 21st century is a crisply written treatise on what is often narrowly understood as “sex work” and “sex tourism” in contemporary Cuba. Set largely against the backdrop of the Malecon in Havana, Megan explores the complex practice of jineterismo in From Cuba. Jineterismo or “jockeying” is “the practice of pursuing relationships with foreign tourists” that has resulted in the creation of what Megan calls a “sexual-affective economy” in Cuba in the post Cold War era, specifically in light of the US economic embargo.

Megan’s interactions with the young Cubans she interviews and speaks with at length, highlight the abject failure of labels such as “sex work” and “prostitution” to capture the myriad and variegated bonds that these Cubans form with their Western benefactors, or more aptly, partners. She grants them agency as actors and decision-makers who get into relationships with foreign men for reasons that include and transcend material gain.

With equal sensitivity and nuance, Megan also maps the raced, gendered and classed dimensions of the reactions which reactions? these relationships engender, focusing in particular on the multiple levels at which these young women are subject to violence; most notably meted out by the socialist state and its affiliated institutions. The state’s disparaging dismissal of this economy of love, if you like, is both predictable and curious. On the one hand, jineterismo is construed as a consumerist impulse that must be crushed in order for the citizens of Cuba to remain true to the ideals of the revolution. On the other, the relative sexual freedom young Cubans enjoy is something of an anomaly that is owed at least partially, to the propagation of women’s rights through the (admittedly problematic) Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).

Continue reading