An RLS-NYC interview with Forum on the Arms Trade director Jeff Abramson.
Recently Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York City Office got the chance to catch up with Jeff Abramson, director of the Forum on the Arms Trade, which houses within it an Emerging Experts program designed for individuals who have “expressed an interest in addressing the humanitarian, economic and other implications of arms transfers, security assistance, and weapons use, and are at an early stage in their career.” Over the course of the pandemic as so much moved to virtual spaces, the Emerging Experts program itself moved to a more internationalist orientation, bringing on an expanded cohort from across the globe. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is a proud sponsor of the program.
So can you tell us a little bit about the Emerging Experts program? Maybe how and when it was conceived, and its objectives.
So just a quick step backwards. The Forum on the Arms Trade is meant to be a network of people around the world who work on arms trade, security assistance and weapons use issues, primarily from a side of concerns about the humanitarian and other consequences of that. A core purpose of the network is to support the profession. One of the really hard things about the work we do as professionals is it can be a little bit isolated and stove-piped, and it’s not particularly well compensated compared to [laughs] actually working to sell weapons, so creating a sense of community has always been a purpose.
We’ve also recognized that it’s hard to get into and sustain yourself once you do this work. A lot of people, when they learn more about it, the challenges of doing the work we do, are really interested in being involved, but it’s unclear how you develop as a professional and how you move along. So part of the purpose of the Emerging Experts program is really to help bring along and support a next generation. A number of us doing this have been doing it for decades, and we recognize the need to help bring more people in and help them find opportunities.
The Emerging Expert program actually had a few iterations. Originally it started with people based in Washington, DC, where there’s a hub within the Forum, but when the pandemic hit it became obvious that it wasn’t necessary any longer to have a geographic focus. The first year of the program under the pandemic was really opened up more broadly to people around the world. So that’s how it got started, really as a way to reach a group of youngish professionals who are exploring this space or having their first jobs in this space and to support them, partly just by getting them to know the rest of the community. That’s maybe a quick overview of how it got started and a little bit of its history.
Thank you. So now allow me to back up a little. The Forum on Arms Trade, what is its mission?
The mission of the Forum is to address the humanitarian, economic and other implications of arms transfer security assistance and weapons use. It’s now in its eighth year, so it’s grown over time. Functionally, it has two faces. One is an external face, which is being available to media, other experts, policymakers. The other is the internal face, which is being available to each other and helping each other learn and grow. The Emerging Expert program straddles both, in the sense that it is definitely focused on helping the community grow, but it also has some components of trying to help those Emerging Experts create a public face. For example, on the website there is a web page for the Emerging Expert program, which lists their bios. And in our newsletter, where every week we sort of shine a spotlight on what people are writing, we include Emerging Experts writings. It also provides opportunities to write for our blog.
Is the nature of your work anti-war?
The Forum itself does not take positions, which is intentional in that it enables the Forum to promote the work of experts from different organizations, even if those organizations might have different takes on topics. In general, though, the community within the Forum expresses concerns about the arms trade and the way weapons are used. So it’s not embedded within the anti-war community, but many of the Forum experts are within that community.
You’ve said the Emerging Experts program has had a couple of iterations. Can you elaborate?
In 2020 we went to the internationalist model, and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung supported the second cohort, which was the 2021-2022 cohort—the one we’re currently in. So 2020 was the reenvisioning of it into this more global program. We run from mid-year to mid-year. Northern summers are a good time to start because people are exiting undergraduate and graduate programs, or it fits to the academic schedule in a way that’s a little bit better than starting in January.
So can you describe your background and the role you play in the program?
Sure, I am an arms trade expert who’s been working in this field for 15 to 20 years. Before the Forum started, I had been coordinating the global campaign for Control Arms, which fought to create the Arms Trade Treaty. Then I was working at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Even earlier, I had been at the Arms Control Association. So I knew a lot of people and wanted to bring the community together in a way that was bigger than the individuals, because a lot of us were in our stove pipes.
So I am one of the founders of the Forum on the Arms Trade, and for the first three or four years of the Forum, this was all volunteer work with me leading and other individuals involved. Within the last few years the Forum has received some funding, and I’ve become the compensated director for the Forum.
The Forum has grown now to where it’s over 100 experts around the world, plus this Emerging Expert program of about 30 experts, so the community of officially listed people within the Forum is over 140 people now, which is fantastic. But it’s also really interesting in that the community of people working on this is much larger. Part of the model of the Forum is that someone who is officially listed as part of the Forum will also then be interacting with their communities in their parts of the world. So it becomes a node in the hub for information sharing.
I’m also a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and the Forum is officially a project of the Arms Control Association. The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy are also institutional partners of the Forum.
So the Emerging Expert project manifests via trainings. What is the nature of these trainings, maybe they’re various or cater to the objectives or skill sets of the trainees?
One of the really interesting things that happened when the Forum started the program again in 2020 is that the Emerging Experts themselves identified that they would like trainings. The initial idea was just “We’ll add you to our listserv, and then you can get to meet people.” The Emerging Experts themselves identified, “Hey we’d love the opportunity to talk with certain people and also learn certain things.” So the training component quickly was developed, and it’s been tailored in ways to bring skills that the Emerging Experts themselves have identified that they would like to have. Some of these are media trainings—how to respond to media. A number of experts were interested in just how to find information, so there were a number of data trainings—how to find different databases and use different databases. One of the really interesting things that’s happened with the latest cohort is a number of them are interested in open source investigation techniques, which was not an expertise of mine at all. But Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung helped provide some additional funding for trainings from people who are practitioners of OSINT [Open Source Intelligence] investigations. In many instances, the Emerging Experts identified and reached out to those people for training. That was a really great example of responding and providing leadership within the Emerging Expert program to find trainings that they wanted to do themselves.
What type of information are people seeking via open source investigations (OSINT)?
OSINT means different things to different people. For example, in the Ukraine war, researchers look for information that is uploaded on social media. With OSINT methods you can go in and verify, using Google Maps and other techniques, that certain strikes actually occurred in specific places. Further, you sometimes can tell what time of day and what direction strikes came from. So the open source investigation provides evidence in a lot of ways for understanding what’s happening.
The other thing that often happens in open source investigations is you can learn the provenance of where weapons came from. For example, if you’re really creative, you can figure out shipping routes and deduce where weapons originated and transited. This has been used to understand weapons that went to the war in Yemen that countries might not be transparent about. At one point, shipping manifests showed weapons were traveling through a port in Italy, and activists in those ports took steps to bring attention to the war and protest their country’s involvement.
So, it’s a really interesting way of finding information, verifying information, and then because it’s already in many ways attached to a public community, it can actually lead to action through the amazing sharing that now occurs in our global and globally linked system.
What other trainings have Emerging Experts come up with?
The cohort that Rosa Luxemburg supported last year was really interested in writing and media. So within the Emerging Experts a small group formed their own writing club, where they would talk a little bit and assist each other. From that, we also identified experts within and connected with the Forum who led trainings on writing op-eds and different ways of being placed, be that via writing, podcasts, etc.
One of the examples of success is when a couple of the Emerging Experts partnered together to write—and a couple of the experts within the larger Forum community helped with review—to get an article published that looked at how the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan actually had implications in Africa in terms of Islamist organizations gaining power in Africa, which is a sort of underexplored avenue. It was one of those things that developed a bit organically from the program existing, which is part of the model of the Emerging Expert program, to enable some of these organic developments to occur.
Any others you’d like to mention?
Other types of things that I’d call success stories include finding jobs as well as networking with each other and getting to know people.
We also launched something that this cohort wanted, which is a mini mentorship program, where more than half of the Emerging Experts have partnered with a fully listed expert to work on something most relevant to them. So, for example, an Emerging Expert who’s completing a PhD program is really excited to be able to talk with a Professor about next steps in having a PhD and jobs in an academic field. Some of them are getting help with writing. So those are some of the successes that I point to.
But as with all network work, the network itself can’t claim complete credit for the work of any individual right? The Forum offers exposure and reinforcement.
The Emerging Expert program will have an open call for applications starting in May 2022.