Food as a weapon? The geopolitics of food and the Qatar-Gulf rift

On 4 June 2017, residents of Qatar rushed the country’s grocery aisles, stocking up on as much food as they could fit into their carts or their budget. Qatar had just become the subject of a far-reaching embargo by its regional Gulf neighbors, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In addition to cutting all diplomatic relations, Qatar’s only land border – with Saudi Arabia – was sealed, and air and sea travel was severed with the closing of airspace and territorial waters to all Qatari vessels and aircraft. All travel from the participating countries to Qatar was also barred. With effectively no domestic agriculture to speak of, the embargo’s most direct impact, as demonstrated in this recent Security Dialogue article, was on Qatar’s food supply, which is maintained through its air, sea, and land connections to the outside world. The country’s 2.6 million residents, many of whom flooded the grocery stores in early June 2017, were understandably concerned about their ability to secure food when news about the embargo broke.

New supply chains were established rapidly, however, as the Qatari government and its sovereign wealth fund’s subsidiary Hassad Food worked around the clock with partners in Iran and Turkey to re-source products and establish new distribution and logistics networks (see their account here). Since the beginning of the ‘Qatar-Gulf rift’ in June 2017, Qatar’s ability to quickly overcome the embargo’s impact on food has been framed as a major nationalist victory in official and unofficial discourse – a testament to the strength of the national will and perseverance in the face of hardship. This spirit is vividly captured in the local press coverage about the food situation, but especially about one particular company: Baladna Farms.

Baladna, which means ‘our country’ in Arabic, began in 2014 as a small sheep and goat farm, but was quickly transformed into a major dairy farm in 2017, when it received thousands of milk cows that were ‘airlifted’ by Qatar Airways from Europe and North America. As a Bloomberg article put it, ‘the nine-month Saudi-led embargo of Qatar has an undisputed mascot for Doha’s defiance: the cud-chewing American cow.’ Indeed, Qatar today buzzes with discussions about Baladna’s astonishing rise and its iconic status exemplifying the country’s persistence in the face of what is resoundingly understood to be an unjust and illegal assault on the country’s sovereignty.

Since then, Baladna farms has become a major nationalist icon in Qatar – symbolizing the Qatari ‘defensive’ response to the Saudi and Emirati ‘offensive,’ in which those two governments used their own monopoly of the Gulf dairy markets as a weapon – but which Qatari actors were able to subvert this weaponization of food. Baladna’s operations chief, the Irish-born John Dore explained in a Guardian article, for example: ‘The people that have shot themselves in the foot are the Saudis. If the blockade was lifted, there is so much pro-Qatar sentiment and nationalist pride that the people will buy Qatar milk, not Saudi. […] If we can make enough milk, the people in Qatar will buy it’. Indeed, the embargo stoked a massive rise in nationalism across Qatar, and it is something that ordinary residents now proudly act on by buying Qatari milk. So too can residents tour the farm itself, where they can view the company’s high-tech milking machines, peruse its museum, and watch a short film on the company’s contribution to the nation’s prosperity and success (available at the author’s website with the password ‘national’).

”[F]ood security has been a central narrative in defining agricultural, water, and energy policies in the Gulf region”

The curious rise of Qatar’s dairy industry in the wake of the ongoing embargo may come as a surprise to some, but it is actually part of a much longer history of nationalist thinking about food security or food sovereignty. Food, water, and energy have long been connected with the notions of sovereignty and security – though they have a special history in the Arabian Peninsula because of its desert environment, but also because of local memories about threats made by U.S. President Richard Nixon to use the ‘food weapon’ in retaliation for the OPEC oil embargo in 1973. Since then, food security has been a central narrative in defining agricultural, water, and energy policies in the Gulf region – even when those policies seem fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. Yet as illustrated by the case of Baladna and the spectacular ‘cowlift’ that managed to overcome the Gulf embargo, symbolic capital can be just as important as real capital. Although the idea of a ‘food weapon’ is more fiction than fact in our globally-connected food markets, it nonetheless has important ideological implications in the Arabian Peninsula, especially by galvanizing people and policymakers to action – even if that action is rallying around the flag.

Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism

Between 2013 and 2017, as a Ph.D. student I devoted my efforts to the attempt of analyzing in a comparative way the American, the French, and the European security initiatives towards one of the most unstable and conflict-prone regions in Africa, namely the Sahel. Since the beginnings of the Malian crisis in 2012, the Sahel had effectively attracted international attention, essentially because of the security concerns of different Western countries. The international narrative about this African conflict was particularly focused on two main elements. On the one hand, the collapse of the Malian state was perceived as the victory of the “transnational dark forces” at work in the country, and jihadist forces in particular. On the other hand, the crisis was considered “regional” by nature, as international observers were worried about a possible “domino effect” that could spread conflict over the Mali’s “fragile” neighbors.

At the same time, during the revision of the literature, and even more when I started to conduct fieldwork research (in Paris, Brussels, Washington and Bamako), I was struck by the fact that it was almost impossible to find a shared and uncontested definition, about what the Sahel is. Like in the Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon, all the actors involved seemed to tell their own version of a presumed factual reality, inspired by the projection of their own interests and interpretations, about the kind of security that was at stake in the area. Establishing what was effectively “true” and “real” in that contest was almost impossible, and before the end of my research, I became aware of the fact that the “geographical set” of my work was more a “discursive practice”,[1] than a geopolitical space.[2]

My article “Rashomon in the Sahel: conflict dynamics of security regionalism” starts from these premises, for exploring the effects that this battle about “truth” and “knowledge” is producing, on the dynamics of security and conflict in the area. Four different collective agents – the international interveners, the regional governmental elites, the jihadist insurgent groups and the local communities – are struggling, from different positions of force, not only for delimiting their space of action, but also for defining which kind of order should rule this space, and whose security the resulting region should guarantee. As a matter of fact, none of the actors involved are able to master the consequences of their interactions with the other regionalizing agents. At the same time, through his presence and his action, every actor unintentionally justifies his competitors’ pursuit of their regional projects.  

Nowadays, all figures show that violence is on the rise in the Sahel, while abuses and indiscriminate exactions are reported and practiced by all the actors involved. As I claim in the article, thinking in terms of competing security regionalisms can help us, in disentangling the various and interconnected processes which are producing and furthering violent conflict in the area. At the same time, it could also help to start imagining a different, and more peaceful “truth” about the Sahel.    

[1] ÓTuathail G and Agnew J (1992) Geopolitics and discourse: Practical geopolitical reasoning in American foreign policy. Political Geography 11(2): 190-204

[2] With regard to my Ph.D. thesis, at a the end I had to “accept” to participate to this multi-vocal discursive production of a geographical space, limiting my attention on the five states – Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – that US and European strategies considered as the “core” of the Sahel, and which formed the G5 Sahel in 2014. 

The War Against Vague Threats: The Redefinitions of Imminent Threat and their Impact on Anticipatory Use of Force in the “War on Terror”

In this research project, I explored how the United States (U.S.) has redefined the concept of ‘imminent threat’ to relax the rules for anticipatory use of armed force against insurgent groups. In particular, two new definitions of imminent threat have changed the conduct of specific combat activities: drone strikes and ground combat operations.

In the first part of the article, I examined how the Obama administration redefined, in late 2011, the concept of imminent threat in jus ad bellum in order to establish the legal basis for targeted killings of individuals suspected of being senior leaders of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups. My objective was to show how the Obama administration changed the definition of imminent threat by eliminating two of its key traditional components – that is, the immediacy and certainty of the threat. The new – “flexible” and “broad” – definition of imminent threat enabled the U.S. military to start launching anticipatory attacks with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, against vaguely defined threats. By describing imminent threats as continuous threats that were present at any time because terrorists supposedly continuously planned attacks against the U.S., the new definition of imminent threat significantly broadened the temporal limits within which the U.S. military was permitted to conduct military operations, including drone strikes. The U.S. military was permitted to launch continuous armed attacks against presumed continuous imminent threats without having to collect evidence showing when and where such threats were about to emerge. Moreover, the new definition of imminent threat also widened the geographical scope of anticipatory “self-defense” operations. Given that members of Al Qaeda and associated forces operated in dozens of countries around the world, the new concept of imminent threat enabled the U.S. military to launch military operations in all of those countries. Under the new doctrine, it became irrelevant whether the countries in which members of Al Qaeda and their affiliated forces were hiding were at war with the U.S.           

”[T]he redefinition of imminent threat in ground combat operations led to an increase in violence against civilians”

In the second part of the research, I examined how the Bush administration redefined the concept of imminent threat in ground combat operations in 2005. The redefined concept was unveiled in the U.S. Rules of Engagement, thedirectives delineating the circumstances and limitations under which U.S. troops are allowed to use force against enemy troops. Crucially, both the Bush and Obama administrations embraced a redefinition of imminent threat that abandoned one of its key traditional elements – that is, the immediacy of the threat. The new definition was used to relax the rules for anticipatory self-defense in ground combat operations, in particular in kill-or-capture missions or night raids. The expanded notion of imminence enabled U.S. troops to categorize as an imminent threat a range of movements and actions that did not represent an immediate threat but merely indicated that a threat might emerge at some unspecified moment in the future. For example, such movements and actions included: using a mobile phone in the vicinity of U.S. troops; digging a hole, particularly at night, in the vicinity of a road; stepping out of a house during a night raid; fleeing from the scene of a night raid; possessing a weapon. With such broad threat categorizations, the line dividing civilians and legitimate military targets became blurred, which increased the risk for civilians getting killed or injured.

New definitions of imminent threat prevented the application of the principles of necessity and proportionality during the pre-emptive use of force against perceived imminent threats. In order to show how the U.S. military failed to observe both principles in drone strikes, I focused on the principles of necessity and proportionality incorporated in jus ad bellum, the norms regulating the use of armed force in international relations. In addition, I examined the principles of necessity and proportionality in jus in bello, the norms governing the conduct of hostilities in armed conflicts, in order to explain how the U.S. military ignored both principles in ground combat operations.

 One of the key findings of the research is that the redefinition of imminent threat in ground combat operations led to an increase in violence against civilians. The too-broad definition of imminent threat enabled U.S. troops to be more flexible in deciding when to pull the trigger in “self-defense” engagements, which led to civilians being more often put in danger of getting killed or injured. While it is true that imminent threat determinations were always, to a certain extent, subjective, the new concept of imminent threat allowed excessive subjectivity that significantly undermined civilian protection.

Book review: The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political

Judith Butler. New York: Verso, 2020; pp. ix – 209. $26.95 cloth. ISBN: 9781788732765

In its shift away from traditional approaches to security studies that implied work done through the frame of war and a state-centric approach, debates regarding the discursive and theoretical implications of the concepts, grammars, methodologies, and schools that traditionally upheld the architectonics of critical security studies have dominated recent scholarship in the field. To paraphrase Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams, as the field has broadened and deepened its agenda, studying security’s relationship to the environment, the economy, and the socio-political sphere, while also incorporating new referent objects (e.g., institutions, human individuals, and the biosphere), “what is common” across contemporary critical security studies scholarship

“is an insistence on the important of paying close attention to the ways in which the discourse of pre/post 9/11 world works politically in order to justify particular policies and interests” (p. 9).

In her most recent book-length project, The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political, Judith Butler takes back up the argument concerning non-violence’s semantic and pragmatic ambiguity that she began in Frames of War, arguing that discourses concerning violence (by way of defining violence and/or using violence) often do work politically and affectively to justify particular policies and interests. As a text that carefully explores some of the field’s most important vocabulary – i.e., violence and non-violence – this manuscript compliments Butler’s continued significance to critical security studies, adding novel utility to concepts like grievability, performativity, and vulnerability that have helped shape the form and arc of contemporary scholarship in security studies writ large. 

”This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives”

Tracing the double-helix of critiquing violence and doing violence, in The Force of Nonviolence Butler argues against the false binaries often erected between aggressive action (violence) and passive paralysis (nonviolence). Such binaries empty nonviolence of any agency and are a byproduct of powers taking advantage of the dialectical movement of violence and language through time, a play at turning resistance to constructed explanations of what is right and what is violent into acquiescence at best and execution at worst. Butler’s thesis in this project is that “the power of nonviolence, its force, is found in the modes of resistance to a form of violence that regularly hides its true name” (p. 201). Nonviolence, in other words, is not the absence of violence, and it does not “necessarily emerge from a pacific or calm part of the soul” (p. 21). Instead, it is less a “moral position” than a “social and political practice undertaken in concert” with others, a rhetorical and material (re)action which exposes and resists the infrastructures of “justified” violence, infrastructures that take advantage of the obfuscating nature of beginnings and ends, bringing into the light those bodies, the ungrievable, the marginalized, that, by their very negation, are condemned to subtend what Butler calls war logics of individuality, sovereignty, and rule of law – logics, in other words, that emphasize self-sufficiency and the kill-or-be-killed ethos so popular in traditional security studies and the West. 

Over the course of an introduction, four chapters, and a postscript, Butler moves from diagnosing violence and nonviolence as always oscillating between conflicting political frameworks, to arguing that a critique of subjectivity and individuality is necessary to dispel the narrative fantasies that are used to justify such frameworks, to finally an appeal to recalibrate nonviolence as a style of exposure and critique that reveals systems of violence and oppression rather than just condemning individual acts of aggression and erasure. As Butler emphasizes in the “Post-Script,” “whether we are caught up in rage or love” (p. 204) both of which are drives that can be used to subvert or reify frameworks that detain, incarcerate, expel, and execute living bodies, a commitment to nonviolence is not a disavowal of violence’s negating capability, but a way of using violence’s negation against those structures that use violence to negate other lives in the name of conquest, material and surplus accumulation, and Othering. Nonviolence is indeed a force, then, not a rejection of action but a style of engagement with the negating power of violence itself. 

”In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time”

Reading The Force of Nonviolence entails an encounter with the concept of violence at two levels. On the one hand, Butler seems to argue that the ontology of violence, like the ontology of language, seems premised on the negative, a negating of this not that, which is inescapable insofar as the capacity to negate establishes the conditions for life’s diversity and evolution and language’s grammar and capacity for definition. This is to say that the potential to call something violent (that is, do violence) and so to negate it, is endemic to the process of living and being. On the other hand, Butler argues that a particular enactment of this ontological negation can be (un)consciously weaponized by systems, like governments, in order to intentionally 1) convince people that there are others who violently threaten the “safety” and “security” of “law and order,” and that 2) these others deserve to be killed with impunity and without recognition of loss (sans grievability). In my reading, it’s the “conscious weaponization” of negation-as-violence that Butler wants to grapple with at the discursive level of interplay between the individual and the social, while recognizing the indelibility of the ontology of negation, suggesting nonviolence as a way to reroute the (un)conscious weaponization of negation away from death and destruction motivated by racism, sexism, and so on, and toward efforts to dismantle the infrastructures of those same life-negating -isms (in addition to the already mentioned: militarism, nationalism, positivism, realism, liberalism, and so on) that do unnecessary harm to demographics singled out because of how Western narratives of colonization and imperialism, tied up with state-sovereignty and militarism, have depicted such groups as expendable, less-than-human, even a threat to humanism as a concept and a practice.  

Judith Butler’s book will be useful to those scholars interested in violence and non-violence in general, but also will aid those interested in post-positivism’s and critical constructivism’s influence on the field of critical security studies, particularly with how the rhetoric of violence and the violence of rhetoric found at the hinge between traditional and critical security studies often establish a parallax that confuses the difference between the two lines of inquiry, perhaps especially in contemporary critical security scholarship. For a broader audience, academic and otherwise, I recommend this text for its careful analysis of the terms – violence, racism, law – we find used, explicitly and implicitly, in every policy-building situation, politically, militarily, and otherwise. This book is especially a call to ask oneself not whether nonviolence and resistance are necessary, but how and where one should resist in order to save lives, including, Butler would say, your own. In a year of political uncertainty and pandemic, with questions asking after what is to be done, Butler’s work in The Force of Nonviolence is particularly appropriate for our moment in time – a time of grief, a time of loss, a time pregnant with the potential for radical, non-violent change. 


Butler, Judith. (2020) The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political. New York: Verso.

Peoples, Columba, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. (2014). Critical Security Studies: An      Introduction. London: Routledge. 

The Past Shall not Begin – Frozen Seeds, Extended Presents, and the Politics of Reversibility

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

In 2008, the first global seed bank—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV)—went into operation. Even before its opening, the SGSV had already attracted media attention and provoked all kinds of theological and eschatological parables.

The SGSV quickly received the nickname ‘Doomsday Vault’ while some commentators spoke of a ‘Noah’s Ark’ for plants. In fact, the purpose and location of this particular storage facility are reminiscent of an apocalyptic theme in a motion picture in which humanity tries to prepare itself for the end of the world. Built in the inhospitable environment of an Arctic desert on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, halfway between the mainland of Norway and the North Pole, the SGSV was designed to preserve the biodiversity of global agriculture and thus ensure global food security against future catastrophes. National plant research institutes and gene banks around the world working on the creation of useful new plant varieties have the opportunity to send copies of their variety collections to Spitsbergen and have them stored in the vault. In the event that the national collections are destroyed in the course of technical accidents, natural disasters or social upheavals, the vault offers the option to restore lost diversity and thus the possibility of genetic variety breeding on which modern agriculture so heavily depends. 

”If damage to the planet such as the extinction of species is already occurring, technologies such as the SGSV promise to postpone irreversibility.”

On the homepage of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the main sources of finance for the SGSV, the task is clearly outlined: ‘The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up’.

Shelves inside the vault

The article argues that the SGSV expresses a security rationality that could be described as a “politics of reversibility”. The concept of reversibility refers to a slightly different time-theoretical problem than the ongoing debates in Critical Security Studies  on the different modes of anticipating the future. While the latter are more concerned with the problem of preparing and preventing, the problem of reversibility is about how long a past event can still be reversed. Referring to the time-theoretical concept of the “doubled present” of the sociologist Niklas Luhmann it is argued that the SGSV generates an extended present within the passing time, in which past events can be treated as present and thus be corrected. By removing the seeds from their ecological relationships and then freezing them, the metabolic processes of life are halted and its irreversible process of becoming is reduced to a minimum. This gives plant scientists a possibility that life does not actually provide for: to return to any stage of evolution and reverse the extinction itself. 

In this way, the analysis of the politics of reversibility contributes to a further understanding of how life is secured in the times of the Anthropocene. The politics of reversibility seems to be the logical form of security politics at a time where the catastrophe is no longer waiting in the future but is already present. If damage to the planet such as the extinction of species is already occurring, technologies such as the SGSV promise to postpone irreversibility. Against this background, the SGSV seems to follow a modernist-reductionist paradigm of conservation that feels to be completely unsuitable to respond to the complex ecological problems of the Anthropocene. In the end, is it not precisely this kind of reification of life that caused us the mess of the Anthropocene? Although this is undoubtedly correct, I hesitate to reject the gene bank as a security technology per se. In view of the speed at which the loss of species is proceeding, the question, as Thom van Dooren puts it, can no longer be whether or not to bank, but how to situate the technology of the gene bank in such a way that it not only serves the security needs of the global North. If this can be achieved, the politics of reversibility could indeed become one of the arts of living on a damaged planet.

Armed Mothers in Militant Visuals

In Hamas’ 2004 poster of suicide bomber Reem al-Riyashi, she poses for the camera holding a rifle her in left hand and her son in the other. al-Riyashi killed four Israelis and herself in a joint Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades bombing on the Gaza-Israel border.

The Savior of the Erez Crossing Operation executed on January 14, 2004 Al-Qassam Martyr Reem Salem AlRiyashi,” Hamas, 2004; Filasteen al-Muslimah

Over twenty years earlier, and nearly 5,000 miles away, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) produced a similar poster featuring a nearly identically positioned militant with her gun and child. These are markedly different organizations, and the former rarely includes women on the front lines. But these groups employed the same ‘armed mother’ imagery in their visual messaging, as part of a cross-national trend. In my recent Security Dialogue article, I explore why and how militant organizations across conflicts use this imagery to contextualize, justify, and humanize political violence.

“Widespread Popular Resistance, MPLA,” MPLA, 1970s; Hoover Institution Library & Archives

Women’s participation can be fruitful for militant groups. Because women are assumed to be non-violent and peripheral to conflict, their participation can humanize rebellion. For example, in Nepal Maoists “mobilized women to give the message that the armed conflict was a demand on all people; such a noble war that even women would fight, supporting and sympathizing with it” (Dahal 2015: 188). In El Salvador, some families reported being more comfortable letting their children join the FMLN when approached by female recruiters because they viewed women as less threatening and more trustworthy (Viterna 2013).

But generally, women’s armed involvement still violates social and political gender expectations.   Militant groups risk backlash from community members, and even comparatively egalitarian organizations frame women’s involvement as evidence that the state destroyed social order (c.f. Viterna 2013). I conclude that ‘armed mother’ imagery is a tool for reconciling these complex dynamics in militant publicity. By leveraging life-giving as the ‘natural’ role for women, these images signal violent disruption of everyday life and authorize political violence in response. But they also stress the temporariness of gender role expansion, promising and preserving a ‘return to normal.’ Armed mothers therefore contextualize women’s violence and use those narratives to legitimize rebellion. While we do not know how well these narratives work in shaping people’s views on militancy, this approach is so popular that some groups use ‘stock images’ of armed mothers from other conflicts in their own outreach, and ‘armed mothers’ even appear in posters from groups who exclude women from front line participation.

In my Security Dialogue article, I demonstrate this visual practice using 16 ‘armed mother’ posters from six diverse conflicts. This research offers a window into militants’ publicity campaigns. It illuminates how politically violent groups perceive and explain women’s participation and emphasizes the role gender plays in organizational dynamics. Moreover, this work highlights the importance of visual scholarship and its practical implications for understanding the contextualization and legitimation of political violence.

Works Cited

Dahal S (2015) Challenging the Boundaries: The Narratives of the Female Ex Combatants in Nepal. In Shekhawat S (ed). Challenging Gender in Violence and Post-Conflict Reintegration, Palgrave MacMillan

Viterna J (2013) Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador. London: Oxford University Press

From the politics of secrecy to the politics of knowledge

One of the grounding assumptions of liberal democratic politics is that the open flow of information—including exposure of state secrets where necessary—enables people to hold states accountable for their actions.  

At the current moment, however, the effectiveness of exposure, as well as the broader politics of truth, have become a site of intense concern on both sides of the Atlantic.  The United Kingdom is now heading into an uncertain “Brexit” bolstered by popular support despite a campaign tainted by easily disproven claims,[1] while the United States Senate has recently voted to acquit in the impeachment trial of President Trump, despite the exposure of numerous impeachable offenses.  These apparent failures of truth-telling have led to much hand-wringing about the role of truth and evidence in the political arena.[2]    

My article in Security Dialogue, “Truth and consequences?  Reconceptualizing the politics of exposure”, was prompted by another seeming failure of truth.  Why had the exposure of the use of torture in the U.S. war on terror not led to a more significant reckoning with these violations of human rights?  Seeking to answer this question led me to rethink how we conceptualize exposure and its effects.  

While exposure is commonly understood as a switch that takes us from secrecy to openness, I argue that we must instead think of exposure as a process that is contingent and contentious, with contention over the meaning of what has been exposed, and its significance, at the center.  Exposure is not simply the release of new information: this is only the first step in what might then lead to what I call revelation: a collection recognition that something new has become publicly known.  

Despite the presence of hints, allegations, evidence, and even acknowledgements of its use in the public sphere, torture functioned more like a “public secret”[3] than an acknowledged fact throughout the early years of the War on Terror.  This persisted until the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, which marked the revelation that torture was occurring.  I argue that Abu Ghraib was a transformative moment not just because of the release of dramatic images, but because these images fundamentally disrupted existing discourses of torture as something that might be done in a controlled, professional, and effective manner.  In other words, the effective exposure, at which point the knowledge that torture had occurred became collectively acknowledged, required a disruption of collective understanding, and not simply the release of information. 

Reconceptualizing exposure as a political and interpretive process has potential applicability to developing a broader politics of knowledge. This discussion may analyze phenomena ranging from how and when “whisper networks” circulating information about sexual harassers turn into public accusations, to how a politician who seems to delight in openly breaking norms might suddenly find himself under official investigation.  Only this broader approach, rather than a focus on discrete “secrets” and “exposures,” can help us understand the changing role of “truth”, “evidence” and information in politics.




Plasma donation at the border: Feminist technoscience, bodies and race

The US-Mexico border occupies a central place in American politics. In our conversations about international security, the continued importance of race, violence, and ‘othering’ in the borderlands has only heightened in the light of events such as the El Paso shootings, racist anti-Mexican rhetoric from the Trump administration, and a surge in anti-Latin@ hate crimes throughout the US.

Blood plasma. Photo credit: Jagrap, CCBY-ND.2.0 licence, via Flickr:

While this intense political struggle around who belongs with the US rages, mundane, daily life at the border continues. People continue to cross the border on a regular basis, as part of their daily or weekly routines, and one reason some Mexicanas/os are crossing into the U.S. is to sell their blood plasma at US donation centers. The plasma industry is an enormous global market, and the US is the major supplier – “the OPEC of plasma”. Arguably, this is because many donation centres in the US pay their donors. If you donate at the maximum frequency (twice a week), you can earn up to 400 US dollars a month – for donors like Fernando, who crosses the border twice a week from Juarex to El Paso, this is around double the income a factory job brings.

“Studying plasma donation allows us to interrogate how bodies are made more or less secure in international politics”

In my article, I argue that within a racist political climate where arguments around ‘the wall’ continue to burn, plasma donation provides a micro-site where a wider political struggle over the value of Mexicana/o lives is played out. Studying plasma donation allows us to interrogate how bodies are made more or less secure in international politics, by making visible how life and death are distributed and governed. Looking at practices of cross-border plasma donation gives us an opportunity to cut a window into a wider politics of racialized living and dying within the US. It can help us examine how understandings of race intersect with the governance of biological life, by exploring the discourses that emerge about a particular class of biological matter – plasma and plasma products. My article uses feminist technoscience studies (FTS) as its point of entry into these discussions around the governance of life. FTS is a body of feminist literature that has long explored the relationship between bodies and technology. Using FTS as a way into this conversation shows us how the distribution of life and death is not only played out in exceptional spaces of violence, but also in small, mundane daily interactions – such as donating plasma. FTS guides us towards questions not around who lives and who dies in international politics, but for who lives for whom, and how these relationships are governed.

In the article I therefore examine the two dominant framings of Mexicana/o plasma donation (in media and in industry literatures) to explore how life and death are apportioned between people in these practices. Firstly, I show how Mexicana/o plasma donors are presented as sites where biological life (in the form of plasma) can be extracted and distributed to others.  Secondly, I show how Mexicana/o donors are simultaneously discussed as dangerous, presented as posing a threat to the safety of the plasma supply through an increased risk infectious disease. I argue that both of these framings are profoundly and violently objectifying, rooted in racist and colonial histories. Within them, Mexicana/o donors are framed as having value solely in relation to how they can make other bodies live or die. The worth of their own lives and bodies are not visible in these stories; only the benefit or detriment they may hold for others.

Studying these discourses in the context of plasma donation shows us that we cannot ignore the importance of race in forming our understanding of what/who counts as ‘human.’ Even after plasma is separated from the bodies of donors, a link remains between the donated plasma and the body it came from. Rather than becoming generically ‘human’ plasma, it is still understood and managed in specifically racialized ways. In the article, I argue this shows us that there is no generic or universal ‘human’. Instead, there are only ever specific humans. Studying plasma donation can therefore help us understand how ideas about race produces forms of life as different, and how this impacts their relative worth.

Reframing Agency in Complexity-sensitive peacebuilding

How do relations affect the behaviour of those agents entangled in them? With the metaphor of modern Western dating practices in mind, the early days of relationships are marked by drinks, cosy dinners and outdoor journeys. As the relationship progresses, the existence of one person becomes articulated around its entanglement to the existence of the other. All of a sudden, individuals see less of their friends, family, and colleagues. Why these spontaneous changes in the everydayness of these beings? Our response to this question is that relations compromise the agency of those beings in the relation.

National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain] via Wikimedia

Beyond the dating metaphor, our article seeks to question how actors in peacebuilding settings see their purposeful agency compromised. We analyse this phenomenon in the context of growing complexity stemming from the countless entanglements between actors. In turn, this argument questions the suitability of goal-oriented peace agendas designed to be achieved by autonomous actors, such as the UN, through linear and purposeful strategies.

The inspiration behind this paper lays in field observations developed on UN peacebuilding performance in Sierra Leone as well as on conversations with UN (and non-UN) peacebuilding policy experts engaged in the conflict-affected cases of Burundi and the Central African Republic. In addition, reflections on the paper are also informed by further interviews with peacebuilding officers from the New York-based UN headquarters. All these experiences in the domain of peacebuilding, and more specifically on how the UN copes with it, enabled us to explore broader issues related to complexity, relationality and agency that are object of study in our article. 

“UN inter-agency intra-coordination in the peacebuilding domain remains a ‘nightmare’ “

In brief, we realised how the growing number of diverse actors, agencies and stakeholders entangled in countless relationships in the above-mentioned post-conflict scenarios saw their agential condition eroded and limited by spontaneous, unpredictable and disoriented interactions. As the head of a Freetown-based peacebuilding-oriented NGO revealed: ‘we have so many civil society organizations, so the UN is so confused who to deal with…. Civil society is fragmented; we do not have that unified body through which we could channel national issues such as peacebuilding, governance, health, etc. So the UN don’t know who to target’. Put more blatantly, as a former Bangui-based officer from the MINUSCA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) expressed in conversation, UN inter-agency intra-coordination in the peacebuilding domain remains a ‘nightmare’.

As a result of this, rather than autonomous and purposeful agents, peacebuilding actors like the UN seem captured by messy and entangled practices of undetermined transformation, reinvention and adaptation, much like the throes of an early relationship unconsciously and unwittingly transitioning towards loving entangled dependency. Agency is thus non-static. In turn, actors’ strategic goals are constantly trumped by these uncertain relations in this increasingly complex milieu, to the point of making these goals ever evolving, vague and even unreachable. Ultimately, we suggest that the relational nature of peacebuilding actors, which does not leave room for linear, progressive and teleological narratives, opens up the possibility for alternative practices sensitive with the fact that the unpredictability of developments in social reality surpasses the autonomous purposeful aspirations of its protagonists.

Read the full article here.

Book review: In Plain Sight: Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.

Gaby Zipfel, Kirsten Campbell and Regina Muhlhauser (eds), New Delhi: Zubaan Books.

In Plain Sight: Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, a collection of essays edited by Gaby Zipfel, Regina Muhlhauser, and Kirsten Campbell, offers a synthesis of the work by members of the International Research Group Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC), an inter-discilplinary and multi-institutional initiative founded in 2010, and a summary of the state of the field of research examining sexual violence in armed conflict.  The book emerged from a conference commemorating 40 years since the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s foundational book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. This endeavor addresses the extent to which our understanding of sexual violence has developed since Against Our Will mainstreamed the notion that sexual violence and rape represent politically powerful tools to control women.  

A central objective of this book is to revisit and recenter theory in the study of sexual violence in armed conflict. The authors note that despite increased attention, “essential questions such as the practices and politics of ‘doing gender,’ to the intertwined nature of violence and sexuality, have increasingly disappeared from public political, and academic discourse about sexual violence inarmed conflict.”[1] The book thus represents an effort to re-gender the study of sexual violence in armed conflict and several of the contributions interrogate the relatonship between masculinities and sexual violence. 

This interdisciplinary work draws from a wide range of disciplines that contribute to SVAC, including history, sociology, and cultural studies. The volume includes historical essays and reviews of modern manifestations of sexual violence in armed conflict, but also contributions that conceptualizes the relationship between the performance of gender and sexual violence, and reviews of how such violence is portrayed in popular culture and the media. The book is organized into four sections: War/Power, Violence/Sexuality, Gender/Engendering, Visibility/Invisibility. Across more than two dozen chapters, the book provides interesting theorhetical approaches to the nature of sexual violence in conflict and its relationship to other forms of violence and sexual violence in times of peace. Additionally, the book includes several case studies of sexual violence in armed conflict, including an examination of Japanese “comfort women,” sexual violence in the World Wars, the DRC, and how the notion of sexual violence shapes Hindu nationalism in India. 

”the book succeeds in enabling a conversation between authors who directly address the same topic”

The book is at its strongest when it puts members of the SVAC community in conversation with one another. This is done most clearly in one of the introductory chapters,  “Gaps and Traps: The Politics of Generating Knowledge on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.” This chapter allows multiple authors to respond to the same question, bringing to bear their case specific knowledge to discuss the different approaches to conceptualizing SVAC, how it has changed over time, as well as the methodological issues relating to approaching sources when researching such a sensitive subject. 

Generally, the book succeeds in enabling a conversation between authors who directly address the same topic . This is done particularly well in three chapters on the role of the threat of sexual violence and the performance of gender in Hindu nationalism. Sen’s  “‘Stabbing, Slicing, Wounding,” Urgan Hindu Nationalism, Public Knife-Distribution and the Politics of Sexual Vulnerability in Mumbai, India,”  Mlinarevic’s response, “Nationalism and the Patriarchal Order,” and the final piece on “The Ambiguous Role of Women in Self Defense,” by Sen provide a fascinating back and forth on a moder manifestation of politics, performing gender, and the ways in which the implicit (or explicit) threat of sexual violence characterizes women’s lives and modern political appeals in India.

This book also makes physical and intellectual space for several standout contributions that do not fit neatly into existing disciplinary silos. Yang’s ‘Finding the ‘Map of Memory’: Testimony of the Survivors of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan’ is both substantively illuminating and provides an invaluable discussion of the difficulties of data collection on such intimate and personal experiences of violence. Similarly, Du Toit’s “Resisting the Symbolic Power of (War) Rape,” which discusses how the current treatment of wartime rape in discourse may make this violence more common and impactful, provides a meta-approach to our discussions of sexual violence that is often absent from other studies. 

Though the book collects a number of different theoretical approaches to understanding sexual violence in armed conflict from the members of the collective, there are missed opportunities to engage recent and compelling work on this subject. For example, engagement with Holly Porter’s 2016 book After Rape: Violence, Justice, and Social Harmony in Uganda, which discusses how the same act of sexual violence can be interpretted differently based on the relationship between the victim and the assailant and other contextual factorsAnne-Kathrin Kreft’s work on women’s post-conflict mobilization on the basis of shared threat of sexual violence, and Milli Lake’s work on gender justice and advocacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa would have put this work into conversation with theory-grounded, empirically driven work, and would have strengthened the book’s empirical and theorhetical contributions.[2] Engaging with such work would have allowed the authors to more critically evaluate how victims of sexual assault conceptualize their experience and incorporate these perspectives into theories about what differentiates sexual violence in conflict from sexual violence in times of peace.

Similarly, many of the contributions would have been strengthened by engaging with some of the concepts developed in recent years by comparativist political science research on the subject of sexual violence during conflict. The differentiation between the use of sexual violence as an endorsed policy as compared to a tolerated practice for example, could have added nuance to many of the contributions in the book examining specific instances of sexual violence.[3] Doing so may have provided a platform for these authors to contribute to a growing literature on how organizational culture and structure impacts the nature of armed groups’ interactions with civilians. It would have certainly given the authors the opportunity to more thoroughly interrogate the variation in the degree and nature of sexual violence across conflicts identified in the book’s introductory notes.

”A shortcoming of the book — and a struggle for many edited volumes — is that it was somewhat disjointed.”

A shortcoming of the book — and a struggle for many edited volumes — is that it was somewhat disjointed. The book’s organization by theme rather than issue area results in isolated discussions of some case studies in multiple chapters. This is particularly frustrating as a reader, because the book puts authors into conversation with one another to great effect in other sections of the book. 

Ultimately, this book offers a contribution for those looking to immerse themselves in some of the most recent feminist theorizing on sexual violence in conflict. Those interested in understanding the methodological challenges to researching sexual violence in armed conflict and how approaches to this subject have changed over time will benefit from the introductory chapter, which provides a distilled and diverse summary of some of the most contentious debates in the field.

[1] xiv

[2] Porter, Holly. After rape: Violence, justice, and social harmony in Uganda. Vol. 53. Cambridge University Press, 2016; Kreft, Anne-Kathrin. “Responding to sexual violence: Women’s mobilization in war.” Journal of Peace Research 56, no. 2 (2019): 220-233; Lake, Milli May. Strong NGOs and weak states: pursuing gender justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[3] Cohen, Dara Kay, Amelia Hoover Green, and Elisabeth Jean Wood. “Wartime sexual violence.” USIP Special Report 617 (2013).