Book review: Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk

edited by Alice M. Nah, London: Routledge, 2021. 212p. ISBN 9781138392618

‘Seguridad’ refers to all the conditions necessary to make human and political life flourish. These are conditions of dignity. But security [to the government] is reduced to a military or police perspective…. People have been sold the idea that the more troops, the more security. More bodyguards, more bulletproof vests, and more armoured cars. The overall perspective is missing.

This quotation from Dr Alice M. Nah’s edited collection Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk is attributed to a woman human rights defender who promotes the rights of campesinos in Colombia, the country which continues to be associated with the highest numbers of killings of human rights defenders worldwide. Yet, given the pace of securitisation globally over the last 20 years, one could imagine similar observations being made almost anywhere in the world.

This volume, which explores the risks faced and protection strategies employed by human rights defenders in Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, and Mexico, jarringly exposes the paradox of a world made insecure by ‘security’ and its apparatuses. Given the scale of the crises that humanity currently faces, it is surely in the interest of all to protect human rights defenders and movements, whose diverse emancipatory projects may hold the potential to address them. However, little help appears to be found in a militarised and policing-based model of security which is often tightly historically connected with the root causes of these crises – such as colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and extractivism – and which is therefore blind to the processes which produce defenders’ vulnerability.

I first came into contact with the project which would go on to become this book in 2015 as I prepared a workshop with a network of women human rights defenders in Mexico, focusing on digital security practices in the broader context of a ‘holistic’ approach to protection. One of my co-facilitators was carrying out interviews for the book at the time; as it happened, what we would go through together over those few days would encapsulate these dissonant understandings of security like no other experience I have had. In response to ongoing protests, the federal government militarised the city and overnight our hotel became a makeshift barracks for over 100 federal police. Over the next four days, inside our conference room – the windows now blocked for privacy – our diverse group of land rights defenders, queer folks, journalists, lawyers, and grassroots activists reimagined security from a holistic, intersectional, and feminist perspective. The strategies we explored included those typical to protection planning, but went much further than this, including economic solidarity, use of libre software, secure communication tools, stress management, and collective care.

Each of the studies provides a clearly scoped and structured, deeply disturbing, and thoroughly necessary account of the egregious attacks to which human rights defenders, their families, and communities are subjected.

As we passed through the courtyard that separated our conference room from our hotel rooms, day and night, we experienced a constant reminder why we were doing this. The federal police officers, clad in black with bullet-proof vests and firearms, did not spare our participants and team their wolf-whistles, untoward comments, and even on one occasion a push from behind, as they prepared themselves for their next confrontation with protesters in city centre in the name of a ‘security’ radically different to ours.

This dichotomy comes across vividly in the case studies explored in Protecting Human Rights Defenders at Risk, each containing lucid and nuanced accounts composed by activist researchers who make ample space for the voices of the activists on whose testimonies the book is based. Each of the studies provides a clearly scoped and structured, deeply disturbing, and thoroughly necessary account of the egregious attacks to which human rights defenders, their families, and communities are subjected. In elaborating their narratives, the contributors do not pull their punches but name, time and again, states’ entanglement with economic, religious or criminal interest groups, and the function of violence against defenders as being in the service of specific political and economic ends. What is worse, it is a violence which often comes wrapped in a discourse which associates peaceful progressive activism with ‘terrorism’ or other threats to national security, unity, values, or morals.

By contrast, readers also find further rich testimony to the creativity and vision of human rights movements, as evidenced by their elaboration of practices of self- and collective care and protection. As reflected in a growing literature which has emerged in recent years, it is in these practices, both formal and informal, that glimpses of a different ‘security’ emerge: one which recognises and responds to the structural nature of socio-political violence in a holistic manner. In their chapter on Indonesia, for example, Alice Nah and Budi Hernawan highlight the role of neighbourly and kinship ties in saving defenders from attacks in Indonesia; similarly, in their exploration of the socio-geographies of security in Kenya, Irina Ichim and Patrick Mutahi recount the role played by neighbours and communities in informal settlements in warning defenders of potential attacks or mobilising in solidarity to respond to them. Further noteworthy examples of creative and effective approaches to protection among civil society which are highlighted include the unarmed traditional indigenous guards in Colombia, and the intersecting web of protection mechanisms which civil society has developed to fill the chasm left by the state in Mexico. While not without their challenges, these strategies stand in stark contrast to the few existing state-based mechanisms for human rights defender protection which, modest successes notwithstanding, are often characterised by under-resourcing, a lack of political will, and an ill-fitting, individualistic, and policing-based understanding of security. Moreover, and importantly, in their recognition and interweaving of economic, cultural, and social resources within security practices, civil society’s protection strategies represent a vision of the indivisibility of human rights in action.

The kind of depth and detail found in an edited collection such as this perhaps necessarily comes at the expense of some breadth. As diverse and emblematic as the country studies are, we are left without exploration of the particular and influential dynamics of the likes of China, Europe, North America, and Russia, all of which matter significantly in the context of the intersectional crises global civil society currently faces. Perhaps reflecting the research methodology, certain ever more common forms of violence against human rights defenders such as digital surveillance or online violence and its gender-based expressions, are also notable for their relative absence.

The many common threads which do emerge, however, are brought together with the eye of an insightful and dedicated practitioner in Nah’s concluding chapter

The many common threads which do emerge, however, are brought together with the eye of an insightful and dedicated practitioner in Nah’s concluding chapter, which calls for a ‘reimagination’ of protection and makes a series of helpful assertions in this regard. Fundamental to many of these recommendations is a commitment to collective and holistic understandings of security and protection as embodied by defenders’ own practices: recognition of the importance of family, community, and economy; moving beyond individualistic models; trusting and integrating the wisdom of movements and organisations into state-based mechanisms, and recognising and integrating an analysis of power from a gendered and intersectional perspective.

As such, the book adds significant literary weight to a growing movement in this direction within the protection niche of the human rights field over recent years, and will be a welcome and hopefully influential milestone in this regard. Perhaps beyond this niche, indeed, there are resources here to be offered to the broader debates relating to public security which are rightfully finding their way into the mainstream over the last year. The mass protests in defence of women’s and Black lives over the last 12 months have served to further highlight the drastic shortcomings of the currently dominant military and policing-based models, which may well be too bound up with the root causes of inequity to coexist with social movements or a social order which seek in earnest to address them. To be sure, building alternative proposals will require creativity, participation, and context sensitivity of the kind that can be observed in the practices of the human rights defenders and communities in resistance highlighted in this volume. Perhaps, then, it can also offer some visions of what a security which truly reflects ‘the conditions necessary to make human and political life flourish’, could look like.

Book review: Breaking Through: Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic

edited by Wilfrid Greaves and P. Whitney Lackenbauer. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2021., 278p. ISBN 9781487523527

Breaking Through examines the state of sovereignty and security in the Arctic. Over the past four decades, scholars have identified sovereignty as challenge in the region, particularly in Canada, in the works of researchers such as Michael Byers, Franklyn Griffiths and Rob Huebert. Sovereignty, in global politics, refers to having authority or the ability to control what happens in a particular area, either in a legally recognized sense (de jure sovereignty) or a practical sense (de facto sovereignty). Wilfrid Greaves and Whitney Lackenbauer, in their edited volume, seek to understand sovereignty and security broadly, such as “environmental, economic, social and cultural issues” (13). The book argues, “Security in the rapidly changing Arctic region can no longer be exclusively about military threats and dangers and that sovereignty cannot fixate on the rights of states to the exclusion of those of Indigenous communities or regional and global governance” (14).

The editors are two of Canada’s foremost experts on Arctic policy. Wilfrid Greaves is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria in political science. P. Whitney Lackenbauer is the Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University. They have assembled an impressive roster of academic researchers and international experts, with scholars from across Canada, as well as Denmark, Norway and Russia.

”[The book] presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada.”

A common thread between the chapters is that the Arctic is a region of profound change, from colonialism, to neglect, to Second World War co-operation, to Cold War surveillance, to climate change, to co-operation. Peter Kikkert and Adam Lajeunesse separately point out that which states have the right to control the Canadian and broader North American Arctic has been a persistent national anxiety. This feeling that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is in question has never really gone away. Mathieu Landriault finds that newspaper op-eds during the 2000s often focused on crisis and challenges to sovereignty by outside actors, such as disputes over Hans Island, the USS Charlotte incident and Russian flag planting. P. Whitney Lackenbauer characterizes the tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as “suggesting a need to break from established understandings and ‘rules’ to respond to a perceived threat” (143).

”sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense.”

A second common thread between the chapters is that sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense. As Peter Kikkert writes of the attitudes of Commonwealth officials during the interwar years, “They insisted that in the harsh polar environment, control could consist of the occasional visit by state officials, administrative acts, the issuing of licences to foreigners operating in the claimed area, legislation and, in the Canadian context, a small number of occupied police posts” (32-33). Chapters in the book highlight issues that have become an important part of the regional agenda and that we have often discussed in the context of security, such as Petra Dolata’s chapter on energy security, Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv’s chapter on human security or Natalia Loukacheva’s chapter on food security.

Does a state have control if it cannot deliver food security to 70 per cent of pre-school aged children in one of its territories, which is the case in Nunavut, as pointed out by Frank Sejersen? What is the future of economic development if so many hopes of Arctic gold rush lay in oil, when the afterword of this book says that “private corporate actors are turning away from Arctic fossil fuels” (254)? Is Russia building up its military in the Arctic, or are its actions more about maintenance? As Alexander Sergunin writes, “The significant degeneration of the Soviet-era military machine in the Arctic in the 1990s and early 2000s left Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces badly in need of modernization in order to meet new challenges and threats” (123).

A question that emerges is whether the focus on sovereignty is optimal. As the book notes, sovereignty is not really in question in the Arctic region. The introduction says, “Sovereignty issues between Arctic states are generally managed in an orderly and non-confrontational way” (6). Several contemporary issues in the Arctic region that the book discusses could be understood through the lens of security alone. Human security issues can relate to de facto sovereignty, but the book does not distinguish aspects of sovereignty in this way. There are human security issues in every region of Canada, but we do not discuss an issue such as homelessness in Toronto as a sovereignty issue for Canada.

 Sovereignty, however, can be useful as an analytical concept. In Canadian Arctic politics, in particular, it has become something of a brand to unify disparate themes such as the legal status of waterways, the delineation of outer continental shelves, economic development, Indigenous land rights or climate change. It would be foolhardy to look at each of these issues in isolation. Climate change impacts the legal stays of waterways, which impacts economic prospects, which impacts Indigenous land use, and so on. Sovereignty allows us to talk about disparate issues in a coherent way, which is a major accomplishment of this book.

One omission the volume is the lack of a chapter on Indigenous sovereignty. Multiple chapters focus on human security, which certainly is relevant to Indigenous peoples and northern residents in general. Perhaps the most significant change in the Arctic region and question of sovereignty is colonialism against Indigenous peoples. In the 20th century, outsiders forced Indigenous peoples from their lands and stripped them of rights they did not know they had because those rights were rooted in Western cultural understandings. Children were forced to attend schools that set out to destroy their identity. Today, Indigenous peoples have regained their land rights across much of the Arctic, though self-government remains elusive in places such as Inuvialuit.

The book presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada. The book will be of interest to Arctic scholars, particularly in Canada, in addition to less specialized readers interested in Canadian foreign policy or broad regional politics. It also would serve as a very good textbook for an upper-year university seminar about Arctic studies. It provides accessible yet rigorous overviews of the major political issues of the Arctic region.

Military drones beyond targeted killing: The case of Israel

The emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as they are more popularly known, is one of the most widely discussed developments in contemporary security and military affairs. So far, the academic literature on drones has been heavily focused on what is usually known as “targeted killings” in the context of the US-led war on terror. This focus, however, is not representative for how the vast majority of drones are de facto used in military operations. On the contrary, most drones are not used for targeted killings but for what in military parlance is known as ISTAR tasks, i.e., for the purposes of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.  

The more conventional literature on military drones often seeks to extract drones from the wider social forces that enable or disable their use in particular contexts. To examine the ways in which drones change warfare, however, my contention is that a different approach is needed – one which is simultaneously historical, technological and social, where the drone is inserted into an assemblage of technology, tactics and wider societal forces.

”the use of drones enables drawn-out, low-intensity conflicts”

In a recently published piece in Security Dialogue, I take such an approach to Israeli drone warfare. I examine the changing roles played by drones in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the difference that the emergence of UAVs has made to practices of Israeli warfare. The vast majority of drones in the IDF are unarmed with the primary function of providing intelligence by means of conducting so-called loitering surveillance. The broader importance of the drone, the Israeli experience shows, is not primarily its use as an armed platform but rather as a provider of ISTAR, to assist the targeting process. Having examined the emergence and development of the Israeli drone program, I argue that drones have enabled operational sustainability over a long period of time, precisely since both one’s own and civilian casualties may be kept limited and stretched out over, rather than concentrated in, time. In that way, the use of drones enables drawn-out, low-intensity conflicts, of the kind we have witnessed on the Gaza Strip. 

Negotiating Detention

In mid-October 2020, hundreds of Houthi rebels and pro-government fighters were freed in Yemen in a prisoner swap agreed at UN-supervised talks. In September, Afghanistan resumed freeing Taliban militants whose release was a key part of the peace deal between the US and the Taliban in February. These recent events underscore how conflict-related imprisonment, far from being a peripheral issue, often becomes a pivotal aspect of protracted conflicts, with prisoner exchanges frequently employed as a principal element of broader peace negotiations.

The significance of imprisonment in protracted conflicts, and its impact on broader conflict trajectories, is not new. As history tells us—and as I explain in a new Security Dialogue article—prisons have functioned as epicentres of protracted conflicts in numerous high-profile contexts, including Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. In each of these cases, the state attempted to use ‘preventive’ detention[1] and mass incarceration to contain, control, and punish dissidents. However, these tactics often backfire on states as politically-motivated prisoners exert their relevance by making imprisonment itself a central issue in the wider conflicts. Rather than retreating to the margins, prisoners have taken back prison spaces as loci of organising and resistance, forcing both state authorities and their own external parties to engage with them seriously as political actors.

”prisoners exert the most influence on both state authorities and their own factions when they engage in…‘radical pragmatism.’

This subversion of the prison space is not automatic, however, nor is it is limited to high-profile tactics such as hunger strikes (though these do play a role). Indeed, as my article (free access) in Security Dialogue demonstrates, prisoners exert the most influence on both state authorities and their own factions when they engage in what I call ‘radical pragmatism.’ In this longer form strategy, prisoners first and foremost establish self-governing ‘counter-orders,’ systems of internal organising that enable them to maintain a sense of autonomy, while also regulating their daily life via covert leadership elections, financial coordination, communications systems, and education curricula.  

The ‘radical pragmatism’ approach also includes low-profile everyday acts of refusal to protest for rights and improved conditions, such as refusing to comply with orders, refer to guards by honorifics, or submit to strip searches. Only when these actions fail to produce gains do prisoners resort to hunger strikes, which (contrary to popular belief) typically focus on improving conditions or drawing attention to the issue of imprisonment rather than pushing for mass release. Hunger strikes are most successful when they put so much internal pressure on prison authorities that the prison system itself, which relies on compliance and order, essentially becomes unworkable, such that prison authorities have an incentive to negotiate conditions. External pressure from factions, solidarity groups, and at times, international networks, can put additional pressure on the state, but this is typically secondary to the internal dynamics.

In each of the cases I examined, the issue of imprisonment became central in conflict negotiations, with prisoners and ex-prisoners directly involved in early talks in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and prisoner releases being a key confidence building measure in the last round of (failed) talks in Israel-Palestine.  As such, the politics of contention that characterises prisons can affect broader conflict trajectories, as the back-and-forth dynamic between prisoners and authorities, combined with external pressure, transforms prisons from mere jails to spaces for control, resistance, and at times, compromise.

[1] Called ‘administrative detention’ in Israel-Palestine, ‘internment’ in Northern Ireland, and ‘arbitrary detention’ in South Africa.

Book Review: The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare

by Craig Jones. Oxford University Press, p.400. Hardback: 9780198842927 

The law of armed conflict is often imagined as a moderating force, limiting the violence that can be inflicted on the battlefield by banning certain practices, prohibiting certain targets and outlawing certain weapons. Although the law allows civilians to be killed in certain circumstances, it states belligerents must differentiate between combatants and noncombatants when executing an attack and ensure that the incidental harm to civilians is proportionate to the anticipated military gains. According to the prevailing view, the law can help to minimise the destructiveness of armed conflict by preventing its worst excesses. Craig Jones challenges this view in his book The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare, which traces how the law is entangled with the violence it is supposed to regulate. Rather than viewing war and law as two separate and diametrically opposed entities, Jones explains how they ‘co-constitute and animate each other in all kinds of ways’ (p.1). He documents how the law helps to channel the violence inflicted on the battlefield, assisting with everything from the legal immunities granted to soldiers stationed at overseas bases through to the targets selected for destruction. The book focuses particular attention on the military lawyers involved with aerial operations, showing how these lawyers ‘do not stand outside or above the technical targeting matters on which they advise [but…] are a constitutive and entangled part of the targeting apparatus’ (p.1). As such, this book makes an invaluable contribution to debates about the relationship between war and law. 

”[T]his book makes an invaluable contribution to debates about the relationship between war and law”

The book develops the concept of ‘juridical warfare’ to illustrate how ‘war has become more law-full— full of law— in the sense that it is increasingly conducted and understood in relation to law, legal discourse, and legal debates’ (p.37). Jones is not suggesting that the law is simply a tool of legitimation that can be used to render certain actions permissible, no matter how they have been conducted or what consequences they have had. Instead, he is interested in how the law has been used to help channel the violence inflicted on the battlefield, ensuring that militaries are able to kill the people they want to kill without necessarily violating any rules. As Anand Gopal (2020) argued in a recent article about the assault on Raqqa, the United States ‘razed an entire city, killing thousands in the process, without committing a single obvious war crime’. At the same time, Jones is interested in how our reliance on the law to assess the legitimacy of military operations has worked to displace other ways of assessing the harms inflicted during war, particularly when it comes to the ‘slow violence’ that is often factored into military plans but actively excluded from legal calculations (pp.119-120). 

This book provides an impressive historical overview of the increasing entanglement between war and law, drawing on interviews with around 50 military lawyers and detailed archival analysis. Jones explains that the juridification of late modern warfare did not happen overnight but something that was ‘forged in the crucibles of several wars’ (p.35). Vietnam is identified as a decisive historical moment, as the conflict helped create the conditions for greater legal involvement. Although military lawyers were not involved in combat operations, they were responsible for dealing with the grisly aftermath, issuing condolence payments to the victims (p.53-58) and prosecuting soldiers accused of war crimes (pp.78-87). In the aftermath of Vietnam, the Department of Defense established its Law of War Program to ensure that soldiers understood the rules governing the use of force. Jones argues that operationalising international law was not a simple process of translating it into a more accessible format, but actively re-configuring its content (pp.89-90). As well as expanding the role of military lawyers and involving them with combat operations, Jones shows how this process helped to establish a ‘zone of permissible conduct’ (pp.98-99). During Operation Desert Storm, lawyers were involved with drawing up a list of potential targets (pp.141-143). When Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan rolled around, military lawyers had been woven into the targeting process, providing time-sensitive legal advice to commanders at multiple points along the way (p.200).  

”His meticulous analysis of these historical trends enables Jones to draw out three important theoretical points”

His meticulous analysis of these historical trends enables Jones to draw out three important theoretical points. Firstly, he argues that the law is indeterminate, whilst the battlefield is juridically complex, so commanders have become increasingly reliant upon military lawyers to navigate this complexity (p.282). Secondly, he argues that the law produces violence because it establishes what can be targeted at the very moment it determines that certain things cannot be struck (p.283). Finally, he argues that military lawyers do not simply apply the law but actively create it every time they render their legal advice. The indeterminacy that is inherent within the law means that these interpretations helped to establish new legal precedents. As Colonel Daniel Reisner – the former Head of the International Law Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – explains, ‘if you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries’ (quoted on p.1). Recent attacks on Gaza provide a striking example of this. Contrary to those who have argued that these assaults were marked by an extensive suspension or abandonment of the law, Jones argues that they were realised through international law (p.172). At the same time, he argues that IDF lawyers introduced new legal constructs on targeted killing and violence short of war to legalise their attacks on Gaza. Although these constructs were contested at the time, other states – including the United States and the United Kingdom – have adopted them to legitimise their own targeted killings (pp.193-195).  

The War Lawyers is an impressive piece of work.”

The War Lawyers is an impressive piece of work. Jones has produced a magnificent book, which is not only an absolute pleasure to read but makes an invaluable contribution to debates about military law. Although previous studies have pointed to the ways in which the law might enable rather than restrain the violence inflicted on the battlefield, nobody has been able to document this relationship in such a thorough and incisive manner. Jones provides us with a book that is not only rich with empirical detail but equips us with the theoretical tools needed to interrogate how contemporary practices of violence are legitimised despite the enormous death and destruction left in their wake. There are some areas that will need to be developed. Jones is relatively silent about the gendered and racialised assumptions that animate the laws of armed conflict, rendering certain populations so much more killable – or injurable – than others (see Kinsella, 2011). Nevertheless, this book carefully unpacks idealised images about the relationship between the law and war to document how the ‘supposed humanization of the laws of war has become part of the problem’ (p307). Not just because the law is replete with a multitude of blind spots and biases, but because it forms part of the ‘necropolitical bureaucracy’ used to calibrate the violence inflicted in war (p.241). As such, the book succeeds in its endeavour to provide a much-needed critical perspective on how the law works to enable and enhance the destructives of war. 


Anand Gopal (2020) “America’s war on Syrian civilians”. Available online at: (accessed 8 February 2021).

Craig Jones (2020) The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and the Juridical Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Helen Kinsella (2011) The Image Before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilians. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Book Review: Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence

by Rebecca A. Adelman and David Kieran (eds), University of Minnesota Press, 2020, ISBN 978-1-5179-0748-8, 352 pp.

Remote Warfare: New Cultures of Violence is a volume of essays edited by Rebecca A. Adelman and David Kieran, and addresses the contemporary conceptual constraints that surround academic research in remote warfare. In the words of the editors, this volume attempts to “interrogate the cultural and political dimensions” of the reality of remote warfare, and to move “beyond the questions of tactical efficacy and morality that tend to dominate debates” regarding the subject. Throughout the introductory chapter, they outline how the contributions in this book attempt to instead, “contemplate […] how various actors have interpreted and responded to the centrality of violence delivered from a distance” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 3).

Throughout the volume, the authors argue that there is a problem rooted in the understanding of the complex interaction between physical distance, violence, and its affective properties. This they emphasise is because of an ingrained technological determinism that is diffused across the subject that puts excessive focus on the drone. This produces a conceptual misdirection of how the thresholds of experiencing trauma are multi-dimensional, especially when the affective element is mediated through the technological interface between the ground and the console. 

Across twelve chapters, we see an exploration of the anticipation, imagination and conceptualisation of remote warfare.

Foregrounding their argument through the seminal works of Dave Grossman and Grégoire Chamayou, the editors consider how these authors fail to tackle the issue of trauma at a critical depth. They mention how recent findings regarding post-traumatic stress among drone operators complicates Grossman’s argument that “[a]rtillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews […] are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and, most pertinent to our current discussion, physical distance” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 5). In the case of Chamayou, who claims similar sentiments, the editors emphasise how his “dualistic thinking may be a convenient foundation for anti drone scholarship and activism, and it certainly accounts for operative power differentials, but it also belies the extent to which both parties to remote warfare are remade (albeit in radically different ways) through the encounter” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 9).

Adelman and Kieran suggest that these modes of thinking remote warfare repeat previous discourses regarding the distant battlefield, constricting much of the scholarship regarding the subject. Rather than adopt a pro or contra framing, researchers should be foregrounding to a greater extent the cultural entanglements, imprints, and consequences of remote warfare, and illuminating the overlooked histories of remoteness, and to experiment with novel methodologies for critical analysis.

These attempts at novel methodologies are organized into three sections: VisionIntimacies, and Reconfigurations. Across twelve chapters, we see an exploration of the anticipation, imagination and conceptualisation of remote warfare; the unexpected relationships and connections that are engendered by the distant battlefield and the degree of interactivity that is belied by the term itself; and critically, the development of an analysis that contradicts the determinist frameworks for understanding remote warfare, instead tracing forms of resistance, protest and creativity that develop in its gaps. Furthermore, the book includes several case studies that move between personal accounts of active and retired war personnel with extensive quotes from poetry and literature: The critical analysis of series such as Homeland, which open up the relationships between big data and deciphering the archive; drone music as conceptual blueprint to develop forms of resistance; discussions on the role of black humour and parody as an emotional analgesic for the war veterans and; military-grade surveillance embedded and tested within civilian environments which disrupt the citizen’s contract with the state, and the use of architectural art projects as tools to break down the paradigms of contemporary building-development projects.

The strength of this publication is that most, if not all of the texts are intertwined with cross-referencing of material across the three sections. The content of the book as a whole also reflects the research interest of both Adelman and Kieran, which is situated in the realm of the affective, encompassing mental health, memory, spectatorship and ethics. Each text encapsulates robustly the intention of the editors and, although most seem to be discussing very similar topics, enhances the argument put forth in the introductory sections. As Brunck mentions, “the notion of remote warfare also encapsulates ideas about spatial, cultural and psychological remoteness.” which all come into play in affecting interaction with the distant battlefield” (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 179). These “notions”, abstract as they may be, risk “drowning out the actuality and relevance of soldiers’” and non-combatants’, the “very corpo-real experiences of remote warfare”, especially when seen through what Nielsen and most of the authors argue are an “Americanized, techno-fixated, and future-oriented discourse” that “tends to subdue other aspects and experiences” of the distant battlefield (Adelman & Kieran, 2020, p. 202).

[T]his book is an excellent resource for researchers intent on forming a better understanding of the methodological challenges that are reflected in researching trauma in complex environments

Indeed, the extensive discussion of “discourse” is permeating through the whole edition. Except for a small handful of texts, most material in this edited book is using pop culture, political narrative, poetry and literature to investigate the affective properties of remote warfare, which make the thematic sections seem arbitrary. In a sense, the strength of the volume is also its weakness in that although it does push forward a novel methodology to address these issues, that novel methodology is itself somewhat methodologically narrow. This raises the question of whether the effects of the distant battlefield, as producing effects which are psychologically decipherable, are indeed only decipherable within the analysis of texts and fiction and whether there is any possibility to develop instead a materially-bound analysis of the issue. Some texts do however attempt this in minute ways; Tim Jelfs for example proposes a consideration of the relationship between the human and non-human elements of remote warfare, but again turns back to literature as a support. For those interested in alternative breakdowns of the “technological determinism” mentioned through the book, which is deeply tied with the materiality of its effects, the chapters by Richardson, and Ortiz are strong candidates.

In summary, this book is an excellent resource for researchers intent on forming a better understanding of the methodological challenges that are reflected in researching trauma in complex environments, such as the distant battlefield, and how contemporary modes of approaching this topic have shifted over time. Readers interested in an overview will benefit greatly from the introductory chapter which delivers a concise round up of some of the critical components of the ongoing debates in the field. This holds true also for those who may not find explorations of literature, poetry and pop culture useful to their more materialist or technological oriented approach. However, the extensive referencing of seminal works in the area of research will surely expand one’s reading list.


Adelman, Rebecca A., and David Kieran, eds. 2020. Remote Warfare : New Cultures of Violence. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Book review: Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception

by Andrew W. Neal, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 288pp., £80/$US104.00 (Hardback), ISBN: 9781474450928

“How do we know security when we see it?” was the question that remained in my head during the whole time I was reading this book. I went to the kitchen to grab a coffee and my brain started drifting to “How do we know it? How… when we see it? I closed my eyes in my cozy bed and, suddenly, I started asking: “How…but how?”. It was like an ear worm that this genius question lived in my mind, from the first time I read it to the last page of Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception by Andrew W. Neal. And although it sounds like that the question was never answered, this is a false assumption. The question was indeed answered by the author in the same chapter it was posed to the reader. Nevertheless, my inner chanting simply represents what I took from the reading of the book and what I will, definitely, continue applying to my academic life: the challenging of the taken-for-grantedness of – apparently tautological – concepts such as security.

Context is the key element is here. Drawing on Ciuta and on Foucault’ problematization, Neal proposes seeing security as a concept of its time, defined by historical context. This ontological stand is derived from a very strong opposition to the developments of the Copenhagen School’s securitization theory (ST). While the ST imposes a strict definition of security to avoid the “everything becomes security” trap (Neal 2019: 45), Neal’s contextual/historical conceptualization of security is compared to a moving target that fits perfectly the constant changes we face in society.

”Security as Politics is a book that not only questions the concept of security and its position within the “spheres” of politics, but it also intends to bridge the gap between theory and practice.”

Security as Politics is a book that not only questions the concept of security and its position within the “spheres” of politics (Neal 2019: 90), but it also intends to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Its central discussion, presented in the first five chapters, revolves around the fact that “security was once an anti-political ‘exception’ in liberal democracies” (Neal 2020)[1], limited to the level of “‘high politics’ and statecraft” (Neal 2019: 4), but now it can be seen practiced in the ‘normal’ political arena. Neal’s argument focuses specifically on the field of professional politics, and the role of politicians such as parliamentarians in the fusing of security with “normal” politics. Therefore, in the last chapters, Neal chooses to represent his conjectures empirically by using the political developments of the UK Parliament as a case study: from a pre-Cold War era, to a post-9/11 paradigm, and addressing the changes happening from 2010 onwards. The case chosen helps guiding the reader through a complex field with a light and easy pace that only mirrors the well thought structure of the book. This can be exemplified during the presentation of its methodology in chapter two, and the explanation of politization and the political game involving security issues in chapters three and four.  

The book starts revising the literature and scholarships on security, and the first chapter introduces a harsh criticism towards securitization and its anti-political nature that endures along the book. Even though his intention was not to refute the ST, this is the inevitable feeling that lingers with the reader. According to Ole Wæver (2011:470), “theory-related insights should be accumulated, while the theory is kept intact as long as it is the best instrument for generating such insights”. Regardless of ST’s failures and gaps, a lot of what we think about security nowadays comes from the constructivist nature of securitization. Dating the ST as not applicable anymore feels like erasing the insights accumulated by a whole scholarship. Additionally, the theory has also evolved, and although the author mentions such developments, they are not acknowledged as valuable analytical tools because they still come from a dated source. At the same time, Neal keeps coming back to securitization to explain concepts and events which might be somehow confusing. Nevertheless, I agree with the book’s main argument that security is beyond the state of exception, and that the contextual definition seems more appropriate rather the strictly defined criteria. I wish only to stress that an evolved version of the ST should be as much regarded as the concept of politization in the book, generating therefore an interesting and more fruitful theoretical debate. 

”the author turns difficult subjects and concepts into smooth and enjoyable learning experiences.”

Criticisms aside, as I mention before, the author turns difficult subjects and concepts into smooth and enjoyable learning experiences. Following the book’s rationale, Neal points to two reasons for the “invasion” of security matters to the realm of the day-to-day of professional politics: first “the widening scope and reach of security policy and practice” (Neal 2019: 273) and second “the declining deference among parliamentarians towards governmental security authority” (Neal 2019: 273). The former reason is presented along the first three chapters of the book, along with the changes that happened overtime on the other side of the coin: the arena of “normal” politics. And I was pleased to see the thorough analysis that the author made sure to include of not only the developments concerning “widening and deepening what it means to speak ‘security’” (Hagmann et al 2018: 3), but also the evolution of what means to practice politics. The later argument for such a merger can be found by the end of the third chapter and on the subsequent ones. One example of this “security failure” that led to a distrust in the Parliament is the UK’s traumatic experiences supporting the decision of the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003, and consequently denying support during the 2013 crisis in Syria. A subject that would in prior times be strictly delegated to the “royalty” of security professionals, was at that moment held strongly in the hands of politicians. 

Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception is a “must read” for critical security scholars and practitioners alike. Neal is very clear in his writing, making the reading experience extremely gratifying, especially for early career academics that are still getting used with the heavy “technostrategic language” (Cohn 1987) of the security field. Hopefully, the question “how do we know… when we see it?” will remain with me, not to be limited to its application on the definition of security, but to other concepts that seem static from a societal point of view as well. Thus, it is addressing theoretical and empirical approaches to security, that the book becomes a great source of knowledge to deconstruct given assumptions and to break dated paradigms.


Cohn C (1987) Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12(4): 687–718.

Hagmann et al. (2018) The politicisation of security: Controversy, mobilisation, arena shifting, European Review of International Studies 5(3): 3-29.

Neal A W (2019) Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Neal A W (2020) Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Available at:

Wæver O (2011) Politics, security, theory, Security Dialogue 42(4-5): 465-480. Available at:


Governing Border Security Infrastructures: Maintaining Large-Scale Information Systems

Europe is an interconnected space, built upon different kinds of infrastructures that organise the circulation of people and “stuff” – capital, commodities, energy, data, etc. Among these infrastructures are large-scale IT systems that allow state authorities to share biographical information (e.g. names, passport numbers) and biometric data on people crossing borders. For example, French border guards may conduct security checks at airports by consulting digitised information that has been previously collected and stored in a database by German police authorities. Migration offices in Spain may access data files created by visa-issuing administrations in Greece. Dutch authorities may access digitised profiles of asylum seekers that have been created when they first arrived in Italy.

”IT systems are not just infrastructures channelling the power to govern international mobility, but also referent objects of government”

Critical studies on security and borders have explored how IT systems (re)configure the management of international mobility and migration. However, we have largely overlooked the maintenance labour through which such digital infrastructures are made functional; labour that supports the flows of data across the spaces where mobile subjects (travellers, migrants, refugees) become targets of control practices. This lack of attention to maintenance leaves some pressing questions unanswered. Do IT systems always perform as expected by those actors who have previously designed them or do they counter-perform and, potentially, fail after their deployment? If infrastructures, such as IT systems, their components, interdependencies and liveliness become visible when they malfunction and break down, then what does it take to make them invisible – docile machines that operate according to the rules and procedures specified in the documents that lay down their design characteristics? 

In my article “Governing Border Security Infrastructures: Maintaining Large-Scale Information Systems” (Security Dialogue), I seek to answer these questions by presenting in-depth empirical material from my research on eu-LISA. This is the EU Agency entrusted with the operational management (i.e. maintenance and protection) of IT systems deployed for border and migration management purposes. By synthesizing elements of Michel Foucault’s work on biopolitics and governmentality with ideas inspired by the New Materialisms movement, I argue that IT systems are not just infrastructures channelling the power to govern international mobility, but also referent objects of government – both “rulers” that monitor and govern bodies on the move, and unruly infrastructures that are themselves governed through maintenance.

The observation that IT systems require maintenance to function should not come as a surprise to scholars investigating the digitisation of border security and migration management. Perhaps it is the mundanity of maintenance that makes it invisible and unquestioned. Yet, overlooking this process hinders a more a complete appreciation of ongoing “technological work”[1] through which digitised borders are implemented and made functional. This technological work matters politically because it conditions the control and surveillance of subjects on the move, and thus sustains the power to govern international mobility by digital means. My goal is, then, to broaden the research agenda exploring “border security as practice”[2], by directing attention towards a neglected group of actors who, by maintaining IT systems, seek to sustain the continuity of data-based controls that performatively produce the borders regulating international mobility.

Overview of the information exchange environment in the field of EU Justice and Home Affairs (JHA)
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Source: Council of the European Union (2017) Document Number 6253/17

[1] Walters W (2011). Rezoning the global: technological zones, technological work and the (un-)making of biometric borders.” In Squire V (ed) The contested politics of mobility. Borderzones and Irregularity. London: Routledge: 51–73.

[2] Côté-Boucher K, Infantino F, and Salter MB (2014) Border security as practice: an agenda for research. Security Dialogue 45(3): 195–208.

Conflating societal and national security – Resilience and civil preparedness in Sweden

In May 2018, the Swedish government distributed a pamphlet entitled “If the Crisis or the War Comes” to 4.8 million households in Sweden. Both the pamphlet (pictured above) [1] and its distribution may be are unprecedented in the current era. The stated purpose of the pamphlet from the government’s perspective was “to help increase people’s knowledge about how to prepare themselves for various crises, elevated readiness, and, in the final extreme, war”[2]. The title was consciously chosen because of its association with the earlier pamphlet If War Comes, which had been distributed to Swedish households and summarized in telephone directories in the past. If War Comes was first published in 1943, with subsequent revisions appearing in 1952, 1961, 1983, and 1987. After the version in the late the communication on how to prepare and contribute during war situations was put to a halt, only to be reissued 30 years later. Sweden, which has not been at war for over 200 years all of sudden finds it necessary to ensure that all of its citizens are prepared for both crisis and war and are encouraged to stockpile water, food, and other necessities in order to care for their own and their close one’s security. The pamphlet and the Swedish approach to potential crisis and war became international news covered by well-known international media, including The New York Times and The Guardian

At a first glance, the pamphlet may seem to come out of the blue, and represent a return to traditional state security present during the Cold War era. Yet, if we follow the development in Sweden from the end of the Cold War it is clear that the pamphlet is part of wider discourse of building resilience as a way to cope with societal security challenges. In 2015, another layer was added to idea of resilience and responsible/prepared citizens, which includes a return to an interest in national security. This new and encompassing approach to crisis and war also entails radical shifts between Swedish crisis- and security management and the role ascribed to the population and individual citizens for sustaining and supporting the state and the society during hardships. Looking at the front page of the pamphlet we can see at the top how a family is ‘prepping’ food items in a box and at the bottom there is an image that potentially shows a natural disaster situation (flooding) and a war situation side by side, seamless in the same frame. In my article, “Resilience, Morality, and Solidarity in Sweden: Societal and National Security through Civil Preparedness” published with Security Dialogue, I offer a genealogical analysis of how the population and individual citizens are incorporated in the management of societal and national security that expands the notion of total defense beyond war situations and state of exceptions.

”The new normality is the preparation and resilience for future events.”  

A key finding of the article is that citizens and their behavior becomes a focal point in the emerging societal security schema after the end of the Cold War in Sweden. However, as Sweden rediscovers the need for national defense and security, it merges societal and national security into a new total defense discourse. This discourse includes elements of societal security, resilience, and neoliberal governmentality, and places threats, crises, and wars on a single continuum. This reconfiguration shifts the state-citizen relationship with citizen-citizen relations in current security discourse it and dissolves war/peace and crisis/security distinctions. Thus, while war preparedness in previous eras was an exceptional aspect of human life and citizenship, the wider conception of security now evolving bind together societal and national security such that civil and war preparedness are merged into a dimension of everyday existence. The new normality is the preparation and resilience for future events.  

The resulting new security approach and accompanying new image of an ideal citizen give rise to a moral dimension of security that resides upon and operates by means of voluntary actions, even though it is framed as constituted through solidarity with one’s fellow citizens. This development has implications for the social contract and follows from a logic of “better safe than sorry” that sustains expanding securitization, growing fear and growing social control to sustain societal resilience beyond the state. 

[1] MSB (2018) ”If Crisis or War Comes” Pamphlet.

[2] The Swedish Government 2017 Uppdrag till MSB att öka människors kunskap om förberedelser inför kriser och höjd beredskap. Stockholm: Regeringskansliet, Justitiedepartementet.