Ray Acheson

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Kristina Lunz (KL): Hey Ray, so you are the Director of Reaching Critical Will - what is that?

Ray Acheson (RA): Reaching Critical Will is the disarmament programme for Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). WILPF is the oldest women's peace organisation in the world. Founded in 1915 during World War I, women came together from countries that were at war and neutral countries in The Hague, Netherlands, to talk about how to demilitarize their countries to prevent conflict in the future. They had a really interesting root cause analysis of WWI and saw the problems lying in the military industry and the weaponization of their countries. That analysis and work over the last century has been instrumental to developing WILPF's work today as an intersectional feminist organisation that looks at disarmament and demilitarization together with issues related to women's rights, human rights more broadly, the environment, racism and all of the other structural problems we face in society today.

Reaching Critical Will (RCW) was created in 1999 to deal with issues related to nuclear disarmament and the focus was on United Nations and treaties such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that the UN and member states created to deal with the nuclear question. The feeling from WILPF, at that time, was that there needed to be a consistent coordination of civil society input into the NPT, other efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and a feminist analysis of what was going on in the world related to nuclear weapons. RCW was set up as a watchdog project; it monitored what was happening at the UN around nuclear weapons, treaty negotiations and discussions amongst states and provided analysis that was then translated into a language that folks around the world could understand and engage with, to make it more accessible and transparent. We also have a database of primary documentation from all of these meetings since 1999 including statements from government, resolutions, working documents as well as the reports and the analysis that come out of these meetings.

Over time RCW has also embraced broader issues than nuclear disarmament, including issues related to the international arms trade and has participated in negotiation for the arms trade treaty. We work on the issue of explosive weapons in populated areas, which is trying to get states to stop the practice of bombing in towns and cities where civilians have been killed and where schools homes and hospitals are being destroyed. We are also part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots [so is CFFP; note from the editor], a civil society initiative aimed at preventing the development of fully autonomous weapons. These are weapons that would operate without any meaningful human control and would see machines using algorithms to target and kill people around the world, so this campaign is trying to prevent the development of that technology. We are also working on issues related to armed drones and the way drones have been used in violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. We still deal with nuclear weapons and RCW represents WILPF on the international steering group of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the leading civil society organisation coalition that campaigned for the nuclear weapon ban treaty over the last 10 years, which resulted in 2017 in the negotiation and adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. RCW was involved in a lot of advocacy directly with governments, with campaigning and coalition building with civil society groups, and we're still fulfilling this watchdog function at the UN providing documents and analysis.

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KL: What is your exact role and what does a normal day look like for you as the director of Reaching Critical Will?

RA: That really depends on what is happening in the world or the UN at the time. I do a lot of different jobs. I do a lot of the monitoring myself if I'm in the UN when a conference is on and when negotiations are happening. This includes reporting and analysing, providing daily updates from these meetings to give folks the sense of what's happening and to also feedback into these conversations. So another aspect of my daily work is doing advocacy directly with governments. Some of that happens with the report writing that I do, some happens in direct meeting with diplomats and the UN or other government officials, so, encouraging them to take up specific policy lines, talking through challenges and offering support in terms of what information they might need from civil society to promote something back in their capital.

If a treaty negotiation is happening, then we are often doing direct engagement with diplomats in real time on the language of the text, if it's a different kind of meeting where we are monitoring statements it may be that we're encouraging them to take up certain policy lines and positions, so it really depends on what is going on. Other times I might be together with civil society campaign colleagues from other organisations around the world talking about strategy.  Other times I'm just doing the administrative work that it takes to work in a non-profit organisation, so grant writing and reporting, working with colleagues in WILPF's different offices on their projects to make sure that we have an integrated approach. WILPF has a human rights program, a women peace and security program, a political economy program, and a crisis response program mostly focusing in the Middle East and North Africa. All of these programs try to work together as much as possible so we're inputting into each other's efforts to ensure that we can move forward together.

KL: In 2016, as you briefly mentioned before, the UN General Assembly decided by an overwhelming majority to initiate negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons in 2017. These negotiations concluded on the 7th July 2017 in New York when 122 states voted for the adoption of the Treaty and on the 20th September the Treaty opened for signature at a high level meeting in New York. As a relatively young organisation, what has RCW’s exact role been in all of this?

RA: RCW is young-ish (almost 20 years old) but WILPF has been an anti-nuclear organisation since the dawn of the atomic age of 1945. WILPF members around the world were protesting the creation and use of nuclear weapons, and in addition to these international programs, WILPF is also a global membership based organisation. So we have about 40 sections around the world, national sections, and they do work on everything from local grassroots work on small arms control and women's rights and women's empowerment to visiting the United Nations to address international forums on the country's situation. There's a lot of global anti-nuclear work that has happened historically in WILPF and RCW has lead in our collaboration with ICAN . Two of the women who were involved in the founding and origins of RCW were also involved in the founding of ICAN in Melbourne in 2007, so there's a direct connection between the two entities.

As a representative of WILPF, I’ve been engaged in the international steering group of ICAN, which is the decision-making, policy-setting body for the campaign, comprising 10 international organisations. It's been involved with the strategy for not just the campaign’s development and growth, but also for the Treaty's development and trajectory.

We worked initially with some governments that were very concerned about stalemate in nuclear disarmament, the new investments in nuclear arsenals, which the nuclear-armed states refer to as modernisation, which is a euphemism for spending billions of dollars on these weapons to rebuild their arsenals and continue on the nuclear threat into the indefinite future. Governments that don't have nuclear weapons and have had a consistent policy in favour of nuclear disarmament are really concerned about this trend and about the failures of nuclear-armed states to engage in real nuclear disarmament. We've seen reductions in nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, but we haven't seen concerted multilateral negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons completely and, instead, we’re seeing these states saying that they can't get rid of their nuclear weapons, as the security environment is currently too volatile so they need to have them to ensure their own “security and safety”. Of course this puts the entire world at risk. Countries that are rejecting nuclear weapons understand that risk and really want to take steps for action. We started meeting with these governments to talk about the lessons of other treaties that had been developed since the end of the Cold War, so looking at the prohibition on landmines and the prohibition on cluster munitions and trying to learn what we could do in relation to nuclear weapons from those examples. RCW and myself were involved in some meetings with governments, initially like Norway, Austria, Mexico, South Africa and Ireland, to talk about how to advance this and developing a strategy.

One of the things that we learned from the landmines and cluster bombs treaties was that the first step is changing the discourse around these weapons, changing the belief that these weapons are necessary for military security and looking at them for what they do to human beings. They're indiscriminate, they cause civilian casualties, they cause humanitarian suffering and environmental damage. Of course the same is true tenfold for nuclear weapons. So Norway, Mexico and Austria, over two years, hosted a series of international conferences looking at the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. RCW coordinated, edited and compiled a big study to support these conferences. We brought together experts from many different scientific and environmental groups who are looking at health effects, we also worked with the Red Cross to look at humanitarian aid and possibilities for dealing with the definition of nuclear weapons. A lot of it was fact-based research, updating earlier studies and bringing results to new generations of activists and government officials to promote this idea that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction, they are weapons of terror, they do not bring the safety and stability, they threaten our entire planet. This intentional work for  discourse change took place over a few years. Other things that we are doing in addition to this fact-based study also included monitoring these conferences, writing papers, promoting the work of academics, journalists and other civil society actors in promoting this new discourse about nuclear weapons and really challenging the concept of nuclear deterrence head on.

At the same time, we were meeting with a group of cross-regional countries to promote the idea of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. RCW also facilitated and contributed to a number of reports about what such a treaty could be, what it could look like; how it would have a normative effect on nuclear weapons through economics, by prohibiting financing of nuclear weapons, by making nuclear weapons, along with landmine and cluster munitions, a stigmatized weapon with which  financial institutions and banks and people would not want to be associated. Looking at how political norms shift over time and how social norms shift and how a ban on nuclear weapons could lead to a change in the way that countries, governments and people think about nuclear weapons - this was the sort of intellectual work that we were doing. It was part the activism we were doing with governments and raising awareness for the campaign as much as possible by talking to students, academics, banks and doing a lot of that groundwork in a coalition. RCW contributed in many ways to this collective enterprise and there were hundreds of people around the world that were working on it.

KL: You have called the nuclear bomb a tool of the patriarchy, can you elaborate on that please?

RA: I think about nuclear weapons in relation to the patriarchy because of two things. One is if we think of the patriarchy as the way that society is organised in terms of being dominated by men, but not just by men but by a very specific gendered sense of what it is to be a man, what it is to be powerful, what it is to be rational, strong and what it is to protect. All of these things are found under a specific sense of masculinity that is quite militarised and violent, that equates strength with the willingness and capacity to use violence, that equates rationality with the willingness to make what folks call the ‘hard decisions’, the strategic decisions of weaponization and how to deter and protect countries from attack. All of the language and approaches are bound up in a militarised sense of security, that more weapons equal more security and nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of security because they are the biggest, baddest weapons. This belief has become so entrenched in our collective community and society, the way that we think about the world and the way that the world is ordered. I feel that in relation to the patriarchy, what is credible, what is an acceptable way to think about security, is certainly not a feminist approach that might be more inclusive of other voices and perspectives. It's an approach that's very dominated by global militarized masculinity. I see nuclear weapons as an extension of this or even as a tool of the patriarchy in that they are weapons meant to dominate, control and exclude. They are weapons that dictate a certain kind of foreign policy, a defence policy that is predicated on the idea that the ability to destroy the entire planet or commit genocide or to eliminate entire cities with one bomb is the best way that we can afford security to the people of our country.

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The other way that I feel nuclear weapons are related to patriarchy is the tools and techniques that are used by those who defend nuclear weapons. I see this as an aspect of patriarchal control and domination. I think about this concept of gaslighting, which you can see in politics right now, but it's really a term that comes from the systematic psychological abuse in primarily intimate relationships, where people control others by acting as if the reality the other person is experiencing is not reality at all. The way I see this playing out with nuclear weapons is, for example, when those who defend nuclear weapons refuse to engage even with the conversation about humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states didn't even show up to the conferences that the rest of the world attended on impacts of their own weapons, they refused to come and participate. They won't even talk about what their weapons do, they dismiss the latest studies about what survivors of nuclear weapons are saying around the world, how they experienced the use of nuclear weapons in Japan and what they have experienced. They won't listen to testimony and they refuse to engage. There is of course a colonial, racist element to this as well because nuclear weapons were used on Japan and have been primarily tested on indigenous lands around the world, including in Australia, Algeria, the Pacific islands, the United States and Kazakhstan. The voices of survivors of these tests are completely excluded from the debate and instead we are told over and over again that the reality is nuclear weapons are protectors, they are not meant to be used, they are meant to deter conflict. It completely ignores the reality experienced by people and the reality that these weapons are at risk of being used at any moment, either by accident or by design. I see this denial of lived experience as a technique of the patriarchy, because they purport that their reality or their perception of reality is the only one relevant to this conversation.

KL: On a panel we shared recently you spoke of the colonial legacies that have been at display during the negotiations and advocacy for the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons? What do you mean by that?

RA: There's a couple of perspectives on this, one is that, as I said, is where nuclear weapons have been used and tested. The French tested their weapons in Algeria; the United States tested a lot of its weapons in Nevada but also in the Pacific, even though there were Pacific islanders who are still being impacted and cannot return to the land and have suffered health effects from this testing. The British tested their nuclear weapons in Australia in the desert and said again these are empty lands, but they were full of First Nations communities, which have experienced effects from the testing. Even the creation of nuclear weapons has discriminatory impacts; most uranium mining has been done in the lands of First Nations communities, for example, so there's a lot of ways in which the physical impacts of nuclear weapons have a colonial and racist elements to them.

What's been interesting with the negotiation and development of the nuclear weapon ban treaty is that a lot of these communities who supported the negotiations engaged with ICAN to campaign and came to the United Nations to speak. Survivors from Japan, Australia, the Pacific contributed to the humanitarian impact conferences, to various publications and gave testimony at the UN numerous times, reliving their horrors to give a human face to the challenge of nuclear weapons. The majority of countries that participated actively in the process to ban nuclear weapons are countries of the Global South whose governments have already rejected nuclear weapons and many of them have already met together in regional nuclear weapon free zone. These are countries that do not believe nuclear weapons afford security, who look at the wasted resources going to nuclear weapons and the concept of militarised security at the expense of achieving sustainable development, fighting climate change. They look at this situation and wanted to have a voice in standing up to former colonial powers.

In addition to the nuclear-armed states, the NATO countries have a policy that supports nuclear weapons as a form of their security. The governments of Australia, Japan and South Korea have relationships with the United States that say that they are reliant on US nuclear weapons for their security as well. The situation is that most of the Western world supports nuclear weapons, where as most of the Global South does not. So this really was an instance in the majority of countries that are generally considered, in the military sense of the word, less powerful - they're the ones who stood up and have said no, enough is enough, we are outlawing these weapons of terror.

KL: Can you give me your definition of a feminist foreign policy and then please tell me if you think Canada has a feminist foreign policy?

RA: When I think of a feminist foreign policy, I think of a policy that is based on a very comprehensively intersectional analysis of the world. So this means we're not just talking about a policy that deals with women's rights or women's empowerment, but we're looking at policy that is promoting and safeguarding human rights and challenging any threats to human rights globally. That has an analysis that brings in a racial justice angle in the broadest possible, a social justice angle, socio-economic issues, climate issues, environment issues, abilities, access, education, and that it's promoting human rights as a full spectrum. It's the policy that is not weaponized, it does not connect itself to this idea that more weapons equal more security or that we need to defend human rights through militarism or that we need to have weapons export policy and be invested in the arms trade the way that so many countries are today.

This is one of the misalignments I see with Canada's stated feminist foreign policy. On the one hand the current Canadian government is saying they are working towards a foreign policy to promote women's rights to give aid to women's maternal health and development, and that is really excellent work that Canada should be doing; but while they're pursuing those policies, they're also selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition that has caused incredible famine and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is also one of the worst countries on record in terms of women's rights and so it's just incredible that Canada can say that it has a feminist foreign policy at the same time as it’s exporting weapons to a country like this. I'm also very concerned about Canada's new defence policy in which they are raising the military budget, they are investing in the development of weapons more than they have before, and I see these two things as being incompatible with each other. I would certainly celebrate Canada's embrace of the term feminism and the idea of wanting to have a feminist foreign policy, but I would seriously challenge Canada’s approach by how they are acting in other ways. I think another angle of this is, of course, nuclear weapons: Canada is part of NATO and it has not challenged the NATO nuclear weapon doctrine nor joined the nuclear weapon ban treaty. This is something that Canada should have been a leader in. They were a leader in the treaty to prohibit landmines and we have humanitarian principles as part of our core identity, and yet Justin Trudeau has called the nuclear ban treaty 'sort of useless'. I think shifting policy on issues like that is also really important for Canada.

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KL: The Arms Trade Treaty from 2014 was the first treaty on disarmament that included gender specific issues such as GBV. Can you elaborate a bit more on where gender specific aspects are included in disarmament work and especially what is missing?

RA: Yes, there was a campaign that was lead by WILPF together with the International Action Network on Small Arms and Amnesty International to ensure that gender-based violence was included in the Arms Trade Treaty as a legally binding provision so that states would not be able to export arms if there was a risk of gender-based violence being committed. It was a tough campaign in the beginning, countries were not convinced at all about the relationship between gender-based violence and the arms trade, but we did a lot of work over a seven-year period to educate diplomats and other officials, and to  work with civil society groups to raise these issues, and, by the end of the negotiations, we had over 100 countries agreeing that there should be a legally binding provision in the Treaty. That now is a legally binding requirement for any country that has joined the Arms Trade Treaty. But what we're seeing is that a lot of countries keep saying that they don't really understand how to implement it, so a few years ago RCW did a big study on what resources export officials need to look at, how they can find information about the risk of gender-based violence and how to make proper decisions on this issue.

Of course, for WILPF, it's a little bit tricky because we're opposed to militarism and the arms trade is a big contributor to the use and proliferation of weapons around the world, but we are trying to provide government with tools to implement this provision and think about how conflict and gender-based violence are intimately related. In the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons there is also a reference to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons specifically in relation to women and girls because of the impact that ionising radiation physically has on women and girls’ bodies. There is also a recognition of the importance of women's participation in disarmament and arms control negotiations and policies and practices in the TPNW.

Some other strides that been made; recently at the UN, 57 countries came together to join a statement on gender and disarmament looking at the way in which countries need to take up the question of gender diversity, including women's participation in disarmament negotiations and processes, and also the gendered impacts of weapons. There was also a reference to the need to understand how gender norms impact disarmament and arms control policies. There is a growing recognition of the importance of women being included in peacebuilding and peace processes and disarmament, but it really often stops there. Sometimes we get acknowledgement of the gendered impacts, which means how women might be physically or even socially impacted differently from the use of proliferation of weapons, but we haven't gone further than that. The work that has been done so far largely leaves out an analysis of gendered norms and dynamics, such as consideration of  violent masculinity and the ways in which ideas about the what is “feminine” and “masculine” affect our approaches to disarmament and disarmament issues. It also excludes anybody who does not identify as a cisgender man or a woman, as there is no recognition of a non-binary, transgender, genderqueer or other identities and experiences. Including these perspectives and people in disarmament discussions is going to be of vital importance moving forward in order to develop a robust understanding of gender and weapons, implications for disarmament, and for developing feminist foreign policies.

KL: Thank you so much Ray for your time, insights and your incredible work in general.


Interview by Kristina Lunz, Co-Founder of CFFP and Germany Director. Twitter: @Kristina_Lunz

Transcription by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough


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