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Women in Frontline Combat Roles

December 23, 2014

On Friday 19 Dec 2014, I talked to the BBC about allowing women women to take on frontline combat roles in the UK military. The Ministry of Defence has been reviewing its policy on this matter, and the BBC asked me for some thoughts on this issue. For a whole variety of reasons, I think women should be allowed to take on combat roles.

I have a lot more to say about this topic- hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the points from the clip when things are less busy. But to begin this conversation, I’ve posted the BBC interview clip below.

Some of my ideas are also summarized here in this Independent article.


Remembering December 6th and the Montreal Massacre

December 6, 2013

I wrote this email when I was 23 years old, in my final year of my systems engineering program at the University of Waterloo. Even though the Montreal Massacre happened so long ago that many of you may not have even heard of it, I hope that we can still take the time to remember the women who were killed, simply because they were women. Let those fourteen young women never be forgotten.

From The Daily Bulletin, circa December 4th, 1998:

After our conversation last week, I sat back and thought long and hard about what we’re trying to do with this event, because like it or not, it has become an “event”. The members of the organizing committee are trying to de-politicize it by making it personal, but we can’t deny that it is a public event for a reason.

1989 seems so long ago . . . that was the end of Communism and the height of the real estate boom. Nine years later, here we are: so much has changed and yet, nothing has changed. You said to me that it seemed like just yesterday that the killings took place, but nine years is a long, long time. Especially when you’re only 23, like me. I was 14 years old and in grade nine on December 6, 1989. I did not completely understand the killings and why they had happened. I had no idea I would end up, five years later, studying to be an engineer. And for those of us in first year at UW, these students would only have been 9 years old, and in the middle of grade 5 — how can you relate to this experience at this age?

I understood at the time that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? The two of us talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

He committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination is not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. We are valued in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be. Women are not equal. If we were, everyone would understand that December 6, 1989, was just an aberration, a blip in the stats. But obviously, the need for an event like Fourteen Not Forgotten implicitly underscores the fact that there are many of us who still harbour a milder version of the killer’s views. How else to explain the fact that women are more likely to be killed by their spouses than by an outsider?

Also, we have to remember that fourteen women were killed, but hundreds, maybe thousands of people were affected, men and women. What could my male classmates have possibly done if I was being shot at? Not too much. And how can we accept this conclusion: that we are helpless in the face of irrational evil? That is why we remember December 6. Hopefully, by speaking out against these attitudes and these acts of violence, we are helping society address these issues to make sure that it never happens again. Men and women who survived the massacre still have to bear the burden of the death of their classmates. These people will live in fear all their lives. How do we collectively deal with that? What about when these fears are conveyed to their children and grandchildren? All it takes is one gunman to spread his hatred, and the effects are felt far and wide. This memorial is, in many ways, a show of solidarity against everything that killer stood for. That is why we mourn, and why we must continue to remember.

Charles Taylor and the logic of relative justice

September 27, 2013

A version of this article was first posted on Al Jazeera on 26 September 2013.

Yesterday, the Special Court of Sierra Leone upheld Charles Taylor’s conviction for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The Appeals Chamber also rejected his request for a reduction in his 50 year sentence, pointing out that he had not shown ‘real and sincere remorse’ for his actions. On the face of it, this decision appears to be another victory for transitional justice: the international community succeeded in locking up another brutal dictator, and now, it has also thrown away the key.


For those who follow international war crimes tribunals and the workings of the International Criminal Court, the Special Court’s decision would not have come as a surprise. On the one hand, it was certainly theoretically possible that the Appeals Chamber could have set Taylor free by adhering to the precedent in the Momčilo Perišić case. Yet this outcome seems fantastical in light of the political context in which this seven-year trial has taken place. The conclusion was foregone before the ink was even dry on the appeal documents. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with the merits of the case: A free Charles Taylor would have entailed too many risks to the region.

After many years of civil wars and border skirmishes, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire are finally stable. For the moment. As the driving force behind the region’s conflicts through the 1990s and early 2000s, setting Taylor free could have upset the fragile balance in West Africa. Even though Liberia’s civil war ended over a decade ago in August 2003, Charles Taylor remains a powerful force in the country- despite not having set foot on Liberian soil since 2006. The Special Court could not afford to let him go free, not without the possibility of risking Liberia’s security and undermining the integrity of the tribunal itself.

Still, it would be unfair to say that the Appeals Chamber is not impartial. There is no evidence that this is the case. The justices appear to be qualified and of international repute. Nevertheless, as independent as the judges themselves may be, they are appointed by political bodies with political interests. Valerie Oosterveld shows how deeply political considerations affected many critical aspects of the Special Court, from the drafting of the SCSL’s statute to its judgments to its decision to physically close the court. It would be naive to think that any shortlisting process of the Appeals Chamber justices would not have been shaped by these political dynamics, or that the justices themselves would be unaware and unaffected by the desires of those who appointed them.

In fact, we already know from the work of Ruth Mackenzie, Kate Malleson, and Philippe Sands that selecting judges to international tribunals is a fraught process. Ultimately, Sands has asserted that ‘the horse-trading and politicking is endemic.’ He also claims that ‘vote-trading, campaigning, and regional politicking invariably play a great part in candidates’ chance of being elected than considerations of individual merit’. While their study was conducted on the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, there is no reason to think that the same political dynamics would not hold true of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Bear in mind too that the Special Court received most of its funding from the West (US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada), and Western countries have contributed billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the region. In addition, the UK has offered Sierra Leone an ‘over-the-horizon’ security guarantee. Effectively, this means that the UK is committed to responding to a national security incident within 72 hours. Given these considerations of national interest, it is hard to imagine how the desires of the UK and the US would not have influenced the environment of the court. Keeping larger political influences and geopolitical considerations at bay in a case like this would have been near impossible.

Westerners might wonder how any of these factors could affect the final decision of the justices. After all, justice should be blind. And yet, we can see that it is not. None of these revelations would surprise Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. In Africa certainly, war crimes tribunals are widely acknowledged to be deeply politicised institutions. In fact, the African Union has recently called a special summit to discuss a mass withdrawal from the ICC in October because international justice is seen as baldly biased against Africans.

I have argued elsewhere that the ICC is perceived by many as a tool of Western powers. Other UN-backed tribunals also suffer from this problem, including the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Others have made similar arguments. Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has asked why Western leaders have not been indicted for aiding and abetting war crimes when they too supplied arms and assistance to Libyan militias in the fight against Gaddafi— just like Charles Taylor did for Sierra Leone’s rebels. International legal scholar Richard Falk has questioned why American leaders have not been charged for the systematic abuses that have been widely documented at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The facts are clear: justice is applied selectively depending on what country you are from and whether you are in favour with the West. By nudging, suggesting, and sometimes coercing international courts to serve political interests, Western powers manage to achieve desired political outcomes. But these tactics are putting delicate norms of transitional justice at risk.

If international war crimes trials are ever to achieve genuine global justice— for the weak as well as the powerful— there must be some acknowledgement that these tribunals are currently being used as political instruments of the powerful. Only when this premise is accepted by the West can the ICC evolve into an institution with real international legitimacy.

King’s College London- 3YR Lectureship in Conflict, Security, Development

June 12, 2013

War Studies is hiring a Lecturer in Conflict, Security, and Development for a fixed-term of 3 years.

Deadline 20 June 2013

This is basically an assistant professorship without tenure (US translation)/fixed-term lectureship. The practical details are still being ironed out though. Please forward the link to anyone who might be interested.

I can say wholeheartedly that as a junior faculty member, my King’s experience has been fantastic so far.  Here is the CSD group: Mats Berdal, Oisin Tansey, Domitilla Sagramoso, Kieran Mitton, and me. You couldn’t get a nicer bunch of people, and this group is pretty dynamic in terms of research.

While there is a bonanza of politics lectureships this year, I suspect that there will be a drought for a year or two in the aftermath of the REF. The hidden bonus of this position is that this job will take you out past that lean period.

For more on why you should apply, see here for my sales pitch on working in War Studies at King’s College London. Note that this is a 3-year lectureship, not a permanent lectureship.

Ok, it doesn’t always look this spectacular.

Full job description and application information HERE.

The Department is looking for a distinguished scholar who already has an outstanding profile in the field of International Relations with a general focus on Conflict, Security and Development. It seeks applicants who have a publication list that includes both monographs and peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals. The successful candidate will be expected to strengthen the War Studies Department’s teaching and research capacity in relation to one or more of the following crosscutting themes.

• The Political Economy of Civil War and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding
• Post-Conflict Democracy Promotion
• Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Aid
• State Failure and Fragility
• Politics, Conflict and War in Africa
• The UN and its specialised agencies, programmes and funds
• Regional organisations with a special focus on Africa
• Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of combatants (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR)
• Natural Resources, Scarcity and conflict
• Development and Aid during and after Violent Conflict
• The Bretton Woods institutions and Post-conflict reconstruction
• Donor Politics
• NGOs and Private Sector Involvement in Reconstruction

The successful candidate will be expected to complement the work undertaken by one or more of the following research groups within the Department: Africa Research Group and/or, The Conflict Security and Development Research Programme.

The successful candidate will be expected to make a major contribution to teaching on the MA in Conflict, Security and Development. He/she will also be expected to make a contribution to teaching on BA War Studies and on the Department’s MA programmes. Finally, the person sought must have a proven ability to initiate and lead research projects, together with a commitment to launching new ones. The person appointed will be expected to carry his/her share of administrative duties within the Department.

The post will be based at the Strand campus.

The appointment will be made, dependent on relevant qualifications, within the Grade 6 scale, currently £33,654 to £39,705 per annum pro rata, inclusive of London Allowance.

[Note that you will only be paid 80% of this!]

Sept 2013 to June 2016
Interviews on 2 July.

Nostaglic for Jean Chrétien

April 15, 2013

This week, I stopped in Toronto briefly on my way home from a conference, and as I often do, I invited my friend John English out for a coffee. It just so happened that he had co-organized a major conference at the University of Toronto on the legacy of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He invited me along.

With Jean Chretien

I swear I’m not normally a political suck-up

The program was packed with prominent Liberal leaders, past and present (Bob Rae, Allan Gotlieb, John Turner, Lorna Marsden). [John happens to also be one of the most famous Canadian historians around and a former MP which makes it easy for him to do this kind of thing.]

I arrived at the end of the day’s program, just as former PM Jean Chrétien was about to take the stage with former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bill Graham. Chrétien had decided to do a Q&A session with the audience rather than a more formal interview with Graham. At that moment, I knew that this was going to be fun- our former PM had just changed the format to encourage audience interaction. Whereas politicians in office inevitably give scripted speeches with no surprises, ex-politicians are usually pretty frank about their experiences. And Chrétien was no exception. [Get them over dinner after a few glasses of wine, and the stories get even more interesting.]

Here are a few things that he talked about that I thought were worth sharing:

[Please note that I’ve paraphrased and changed the order in which he made his comments.]

On politics and Canadian values:

Don’t be too strategic. Do what is right. The votes will follow. Do what you feel good about. The debate is about values.

We [Canada] were extremely respected. Generosity, respect for minority. These were values that everyone wanted to copy. We were always ahead of many countries on many issues.

On not going to war with Iraq, and breaking with our closest allies on foreign policy:

I knew that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.

[Chrétien to Bush] The policy is not to be with you if you don’t have the support of the UN.

Bush offered to brief Chrétien. Chrétien said that this wouldn’t be necessary- he had been briefed by his own people. He told Bush: For the UN, you need better proof of WMD. I’m not convinced.

After many years as PM, Chrétien was treated as an elder statesman on the UN Security Council. Other countries and leaders were consulting him. Bush was particularly unhappy with Chrétien because Mexico and Chile had decided to follow Canada’s lead.

[Chrétien to Blair] Saddam and Mugabe are not the same. If you have the UN, I might be able to go. You need to convince George to go to the UN.

Blair had urged him to go to Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Bush was talking about WMD. Chrétien said to him: “I don’t want to be in the business of replacing people that we don’t like.”

On the social community of parliament:

Chrétien also spoke of how the social dynamics of parliament had changed. He described how politicians used to make their home in Ottawa and that there was much less travel back to MPs’ ridings. There were many consequences of this practice, but one was that politicians from all parties formed a community. Their children went to school together; they ate together; and they socialized together. [They probably also drank brandy and smoked cigars together while their wives put the kids to bed- but that’s another story altogether.] Political fights didn’t get personal.

On the role of TV:

He talked about how allowing television cameras in the House of Commons wrecked the collegiality of parliament. He lamented how relationships with colleagues changed as soon as the TV cameras were switched on.

Old school politics:

One last thing that I hadn’t quite appreciated was how parliament had become less spontanenous over the years. (Chrétien was first elected to parliament 50 years ago.) Politicians used to be expected to speak off-the-cuff. They would make just a few notes for a speech in the House. Reading your speech would have broken a social norm, never mind hiring a speechwriter to write your speech for you. Chrétien said that it was simply “not allowed”. On a more practical level, two MPs used to share a personal assistant between them, and the resources just didn’t exist for anything fancier.

* * * * *

All of this made me nostalgic for the days of Jean Chrétien- when Canada was doing both great and good things in foreign policy and at home; when our economy was in order; when my government was projecting values that I was proud of. And then, just as I was bathing in the afterglow of Canadian goodness, my political conscience spoke up and I remembered the sponsorship scandal. And yet…. I couldn’t help but long for the Chrétien days.

How to square that circle- especially since I spend a fair amount of time railing against corruption? Well, after many years of following politics in the news, meeting politicians, and studying politics, here is what I’ve realized: dig deep enough into any seasoned politician’s past and you will find skeletons. (Or at the very least, severe compromises in her principles.)

The longer her time in politics, the more skeletons there are likely to be. Those who have no skeletons are the ones who are the most principled and the least likely to make compromises and do deals. They are also the ones who are least likely to be re-elected. Think Mulroney on Airbus, Obama on Guantanomo and soft money, or in this case, Chrétien on AdScam. I could go on.

Call it the principle of political Darwinism- only the compromised will survive. Without wanting to seem fatalistic about politics in general (in case my students mistake me for a cynic), I’ve just decided to accept the bad with the good, and enjoy what is left of that golden era of Canadian politics.

Defending Romney’s “Binders Full of Women”

October 22, 2012

This piece was first posted on Al Jazeera on Monday 22 October 2012.

Politicians say stupid things all the time. The comment that has caught American attention for the past few days was Mitt Romney’s reference to “binders full of women” during the second presidential debate.

To put the remark in context, Romney was answering a question about equal pay for women (which he skirted) when he began talking about the early days of his administration as governor of Massachusetts and his efforts to incorporate more women into his cabinet.

He said: “….I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said…can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified? And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women.”

Although his choice of words was slightly cringeworthy, it was clear what Romney was trying to say: I don’t just preach inclusion, I practise it too. But his comment sounded off-key and just a bit desperate. It sounded like the only place he would have been able to find any qualified women was in these binders. To draw a crude analogy, he seemed to be shopping for a female cabinet minister the way some men might shop for a mail order bride.

Normal people were left wondering why a corporate titan like Romney would have to resort to a binder to find qualified women. As David Bernstein points out, shouldn’t he have been surrounded by smart and ambitious women through his years in the business world and from his political campaign? It led me to wonder: why were these women so difficult to find in Romney’s world?

On the surface, this appears to be the reason why his comment was so gaffe-worthy. But those who support gender equality ridicule his comments at their own peril. (Mea culpa, I include myself here.) Despite the unfortunate language, the intentions underlying Romney’s comment about binders full of women should be applauded, not derided.

Although it turns out that Romney did not ask for the binder of qualified women but was instead given it by MassGap, a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups, the fact remains that he used that binder it exactly as MassGap intended it to be used. He referred to it in appointing outstanding female candidates to senior leadership positions. This was affirmative action as it was meant to be practised.

Romney even boasted in the next breath that “after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff… the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”

Romney should be praised, not chided, for doing with that binder precisely what women’s organizations wanted him to do. He could have tossed that binder straight into the garbage can. The fact that he was proud of having so many women in his cabinet has not gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves.

Having had a few chuckles at Romney’s expense over the past few days, let’s recognize that MassGap’s Binder Full of Women was actually an effective way for him to search for qualified female candidates. After all, we don’t mock organisations like Women In International Security when it assembles its portfolio of renowned female security experts. Nor do we laugh when the BBC works with findaTVexpert to add more women to its roster of television experts. Nor are we tripping over ourselves to make fun of MassGap itself.

These databases of women exist because officials need to make hiring decisions quickly and efficiently. I would be surprised and disappointed if Obama did not have his own binders full of women. Instead, if we want to have a critical conversation about the MassGap binder, let’s find out who was in that binder and what policies they championed on behalf of women.

Sure, Romney could have and should have done more to promote women at Bain and during his governorship. Sure, it was somewhat embarrassing that he did not know enough talented women to fill his cabinet without consulting the MassGap binder.

But mocking Republicans for their efforts to include more women in senior government positions sends entirely the wrong message to those in positions of political and corporate power: We will lambaste you if you fail to include women in your senior ranks, but if you need to look outside your own circles for smart and talented women, we will create internet memes of you that will keep TV talk show hosts feeding on your remains for the foreseeable future.

Is this really what progressive America wants?

If Americans want to roast Romney and the Republicans for their attitudes towards women, then they should do so for the right reasons. There is no need to turn to “binders full of women” to see why the GOP has a problem with female voters.

First, Romney has pledged to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Then there was his promise to appoint an anti-Roe justice to the Supreme Court if given the chance. Let us also not forget Representative Todd Akin’s laughably ignorant assertion that a “legitimate rape” doesn’t lead to pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” And of course, Romney would have refused to sign the Lily Ledbetter Act.

These were the real reasons why the binders full of women comment struck a chord with Americans. In this Romney-Republican world, things happened to women— others made decisions for them, about them. When Romney and the Republicans realize that women can make decisions for themselves and about themselves, then maybe, just maybe, American women will start respecting the Grand Old Party once more.