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EP50 Make Peace Not War - An Interview With Seth Shelden, JD
Sofia Rivera: Hi, everyone. We are Sofia and Ramon. We are both co-presidents of Community Preparedness and Response, otherwise known as CPR. We are bringing you a talk where we hosted Teri Yuan, producer and host of the Engendered podcast and Seth Shelden, one of the lawyers of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, otherwise known as ICAN, a campaign that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
Ramon Alvarez: ICAN seeks to prohibit nations from developing, testing, producing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory.
Sofia Rivera: We're all really excited for you to hear this insightful interview. As we know, the use of nuclear weapons has catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences and is an important as well as pressing topic in public health.
Teri Yuan: Seth Shelden is an attorney, a scholar, a law professor, an activist, a performer. He's also currently the United Nations liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, and you may have heard of ICAN's work. In the past several years, ICAN won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, and Seth was in Oslo to be part of that momentous honor. ICAN won the Nobel Prize for its work in drawing attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and for advancing a new treaty prohibiting such weapons. And Seth is here with us today to speak about his journey as a scholar and an activist, his work as ICAN's United Nations liaison, and what we can do to help build awareness about these issues and join the movement to promote nuclear disarmament in the United States. We will also be talking about his observations in gender justice and the humanitarian sector. So thank you, Seth, for being a part of today. I really appreciate you sharing your story and experience with me and the NYU community and I understand that you've not gotten a lot of sleep the past few days, so even more so. And then of course, we weren't sure if you were going to be available today because of the other momentous part of today, but thank you.
Seth Shelden: No, I'm really excited to be here. I hope I can do a good job for you. But thank you for having me.
Teri Yuan: And I don't think I've ever had a chance to congratulate you in person for being part of the ICAN team to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, so congratulations.
Seth Shelden: Thank you. It's been bananas.
Teri Yuan: So, Seth and I know each other from, is it okay for me to share?
Seth Shelden: I don't know what you're going to say but I'll just say yes.
Teri Yuan: So Seth's mom is my favorite and most important teacher in my life. And so I met Seth through his mom, who taught Gothic English to me for a full year in high school. And so we were part of that community. We went to Stuyvesant High School. And his mom is also a great activist. And so I've followed Seth's work and his career and his journey. And one of the things that I read, which I was surprised about is that you in high school spoke in an interview about reading the John Hersey book, “Hiroshima.” And that having a profound impact on you, which I haven't heard anybody having said that about any high school experience. I want you to start off with that.
Seth Shelden: Okay, well, I didn't speak in the interview. You mean that in another interview, I referenced that I read that book in high school, which I did. That's true. I think that I identify that as a turning point in my personal journey with nuclear weapons. And growing up as a boy in the Cold War era, I dutifully followed my gendered construction and my American identity and understood that I was really interested in World War Two. As an American, I was really interested in World War Two as a Jewish person. And I was taught and believed that atomic weapons were the reason that the U.S. won the war in the Pacific, that we saved lives by using them, and that the survival of everyone then, even until that day, was maintained by this delicate balance of power between superpowers that could threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. So I read “Hiroshima” when I was like 13 or something years old. And the stories that he related so vividly demonstrated the disproportionate, indiscriminate and inhumane impact of these weapons on civilian lives. And it was the first time that I was faced with truly thinking through the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. And yeah, it was a momentous, I mean, I've come to believe since that, and I can trace it to that book, this belief I have now that no country should have these weapons and be able to threaten to use them, and that it wouldn't be possible for anyone to have these arsenals without eventually whether by purpose or on accident ending civilization. And so yeah, and that book I think led me there. I suppose this is a good time for me to plug that in 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima, the New Yorker put “Hiroshima” online for free, so anyone can go read it if you want to.
Teri Yuan: It's still online for free?
Seth Shelden: Yeah, yeah, it's still there. I checked that link the last time I said this.
Teri Yuan: Great. Thank you.
Seth Shelden: And for those who don't know what it is, because I guess I could have started with that, John Hersey was in Hiroshima in the days following the use of the weapons in Hiroshima and the first atomic bomb that was dropped in warfare and documented the horrific experiences on specific individuals and told a story about it. I guess every individual needs to decide for themselves if 12 or 13 is too young to read a book like that, but for me, whatever else it was, it was hugely impactful.
Teri Yuan: Would you say that your experience was unique as a 13, 14 year old reading that book and the impact that it had on you? And I'm asking because today happens to also mark the anniversary for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, and we've seen how these young people over the past year have really become national leaders or maybe even international leaders and engaged in civic, they've been models for civic action in ways that we haven't seen before. And so I'm wondering, I mean, that was a very exceptional experience. What were some of the experiences of your peers when you read that book? Did you have anybody to share it with? And what was their response?
Seth Shelden: I don't know, of course, to a person how people reacted to that book, and I don't have the memory of what other people said. I assume that people were similarly impacted the way I was, but I'm also sure that some people had another reaction, and I guess when people have trauma of any kind, I suppose they react in different ways. And I'm incredibly inspired by the March for our Lives movement, and those young people and incredibly disheartened that it takes first hand experience with tragedy sometimes to motivate people to act. But I was very privileged that this third hand experience of reading this book is what did it for me, and that I didn't have to have something like that.
Teri Yuan: So after college, you went to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Seth Shelden: For college, yeah, yeah.
Teri Yuan: I'm sorry, for college. And was there anything there that stood out for you and continued to shape this consciousness that you developed and started in high school? Courses that you took or experiences you've had?
Seth Shelden: Yeah, I'm sure. I haven't thought so much about this, I don't think but first of all, college was a wonderful experience for me. And I had a number of experiences and classes that I bet have shaped the way I think about a lot of things, including, of course, the political science classes. But I would say that a lot of my favorite classes were art classes, theater, sculpture, and I couldn't possibly have traced together how everything added up to the opinions that I have. I was not and still do not consider myself a natural activist. I don't like public speaking. I've been doing the things I've been doing of late despite the fact that I don't feel that it's a natural fit for me to think like an activist, to try to frame issues in very absolutist kind of short phrases. It's hard for me to think like that. But I consider it vastly important for people to do it, and so I'm trying to do it more, and I certainly support other people who do it. But college, to your question, it's hard to say. Yeah, I did graduate with a degree in International Studies and I focused on economics and international, I wrote a thesis about the Israeli nuclear program. That of course was relevant to what I'm doing now, but otherwise, not much was. I wish I had taken more math classes. I wish I'd taken more science classes to be honest. I think that would have helped me in certain ways but I loved going to college.
Teri Yuan: And what made you decide to go to law school?
Seth Shelden: Yeah. I mean, that was not a natural, I didn't think that I was going to law school long before I went. I didn't know what I was heading to do. I certainly didn't see how it was going to lead me to working in nuclear weapons policy. For me, and in fact that's compounded by the fact that in American law schools, we don't, in the core curriculum, emphasize international law or at least the main curriculum tends to emphasize private and national law over public and international law. However, it did seem to me that in graduating from college and not exactly being sure where I was going, that people who... I should also say that I came from a background of artists, writers, musicians, teachers in my family, so I didn't know in my family who to follow or whose path that I should follow when I wanted to do something a little different as well. And it just seemed to me that the people who are trusted with meaningful roles in policy in society seem to have backgrounds in law. So I thought, okay, if I want to do something, perhaps that's something I should do. I don't recommend that as being a motivation necessarily for everyone, but to each their own, I suppose. But in law school, I pursued intellectual property law, and that's still my field, my main field now. And I think it's because I did have a basis, if not for understanding law, I did have a basis for understanding creativity and innovation based on my artistic background, and that's the core of IP's subject matter. So that's how I ended up doing that.
Teri Yuan: Since you mentioned laws as having practical uses, it made me think about David Coleman, the president of the College Board, who recently came out saying that there are two languages or two codes, I guess two languages that he thinks every student should know for the future. And one of them is coding, of course. And the other one is the Constitution. So very closely, like just being able to understand sort of the tools that make up our society, our policies and practices and and being able to have a language for being critical of it and potentially making changes to it.
Seth Shelden: Yeah, that makes sense to me, yeah.
Teri Yuan: So you've been not once, but a two time recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship, first in Latvia and then in Japan as a Fulbright Specialist Program fellow. In 2012, 2013 you were awarded a Fulbright to study in Latvia. We'll start there. Your project was titled Introduction to the United States’ Intellectual Property Law in the Global Age: the Intangible Building Blocks of Modern Commerce. How did that experience build upon your knowledge base on international relations, economics and contribute to your scholarship in geopolitics?
Seth Shelden: Well, I didn't even remember the title. I think it was my first time living abroad for an extended period of time. I traveled a lot.
Teri Yuan: First of all, I think we should say, where's Latvia? Because I don't know if everybody knows because I certainly had a hard time finding it on the map.
Seth Shelden: Europeans, I promise you, have no idea where it is and people who confuse Balkans and Baltics all the time. And I'm not making fun of any of them. I have a lot of trouble with semantics and language a lot of the time but yes, I can at least correct it. And yeah, Latvia is, while there's some debate as to whether we would call the region, Eastern Europe or Northern Europe in the region, but it's one of the three Baltic states, former Soviet republics, formerly of the USSR, and it's from west to east, it's Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with Latvia sandwiched in the middle, and it's a hidden gem. So I guess I shouldn't say it that much in public. That is a hidden gem to ruin that, but it was one of my favorite places I've ever lived. And it was really, to your first question, I mean, it was a very educational experience for me to live at perhaps you could say crossroads of east and west and to interact in that society for a while. Again, it's one of these things. I don't have a tidy answer for how it adds up to where I am right now. But I got to work a lot with the U.S. Embassy there and with the U.S. ambassador there, we did some presentations together. And again, it was mostly, my focus was on private law. I wasn't thinking as much about public law at that time, but it still just has been part of this long and hopefully very continuing road of educating and learning about educating myself and other people as well about a whole bunch of things and I've just learned a lot from the experience.
Teri Yuan: Was there anything in particular about that country that attracted you to studying there and the alignment with the topic?
Seth Shelden: Well, first that it was a young state politically, at least the recent incarnation of Latvia and the Baltic states, that was still thinking through and continues to still think through some of the earlier stages of its laws. So I had an opportunity to work with policymakers. Like for instance, once I worked with a working group that was modifying the Estonian copyright law, and got to sit in a room with a German copyright professor, and I guess it was a German, a Russian, and I think a Latvian, I may have that wrong. I'm not totally remembering but for some days and myself and everyone would say, "Well, in Germany, we do this rule this way, and you should do it that way." And I would say, "In America, this is how we do it, how we address that issue or that rule." And that was fascinating. And then they would sit there and think through well, how should we do it? It's very Estonia, to take that example, is an incredibly small country compared to, I don't know where everyone is from here, but of course, if you're American, it's quite amazing to think through a country that is, I think 1.2 million people. That's half the size of Brooklyn basically, and how differently it works to write policy with less bureaucracy than you have in bigger countries. And that is okay, now I found the nexus to I think the ICAN work because that has been part of that experience has been I've been working with a lot of smaller states and completely amazed by how how fast things can move in states without 12 levels of bureaucracy to work through any policy. There's positive things to say about that and there's negative things to say about that. But one thing I can certainly say is it's amazing. It's really remarkable how different that is. And growing up as an American, it's very eye opening to see that that exists anywhere.
Teri Yuan: So in 2016- 2017, you were selected to be a Fulbright Specialist Program fellow in a shorter program, this time to study in Japan. And it was in Japan that you first learned about the long lasting effects of nuclear weapons on society there. Can you talk about that experience?
Seth Shelden: Yeah, I mean again, as I would say, it wasn't the first time I had thought about that or learned about it, but it was my first time in Japan. So it was the first time I could visit museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and see those presentations of the impact of the nuclear weapons there and think through the very complicated relationship Japan has with nuclear weapons firsthand. That was an invaluable experience for me. I was also there during the 2016 election. So I was having that emotional and intellectual reaction to processing as best as I could some of what happened in 1942, 1945 rather, and at the same time, as I was processing what was happening here in 2016. But as far as what I learned, or what I learned as far as the factual matter, it was nothing. A lot of things I couldn't, that I was able to read in books or even had read in books before, but I think it was more of the emotional impact of seeing it presented by Japanese citizens that really affected me. But not only, that wasn't the only thing that affected me, for example. I remember being in Hiroshima, they have a hallway at the end of the museum, because you're directed through it in a path. And at the end, you end up in this hallway, where there are all these contributions from world leaders who have come to visit Hiroshima and left, generally signed something or left a picture or something like this. Of course, one of the most important ones that they were highlighting at that time was President Obama's visit, being the first American president to go to Hiroshima and it was the first time that I cried in that whole museum I realized, because a lot of it was difficult to process. But it was again stuff that I kind of understood factually and who knows why this happened, but I think it was seeing that they've had this in this display case, these two perfectly folded paper cranes. Now, for those who don't know, of course, the paper cranes are an important symbol used throughout Japan among Japanese people, as a symbol of hope but in particular, to commemorate the effects of the atomic bombings. There was a very famous story about a girl who was suffering from radiation poisoning and a resulting cancer and who basically said she wanted to make 1,000 cranes before she died and it inspired a lot of people around the world to then make cranes and send them in. So there's cranes everywhere. And paper cranes are a symbol for many people about relinquishing nuclear weapons. And so I visited this, I saw this case with his two perfectly folded paper cranes and thought, gosh this guy's good at so many things, because it's not easy to do. I've done it myself and I thought how did they just teach him backstage right there? How did this even happen? And then I reflected, right in that moment, I recall on the notion of our next president, our president elect, being asked to do something like that. And yeah, it really hit me in a huge way at that moment to think of how he would react to such a request and how much it matters, and I'm not celebrating by the way, especially as an ICAN representative. I'm not celebrating Obama's work with respect to nuclear weapons and our pursuit of eliminating nuclear weapons at all because we do not believe that he was a great partner in the end on this issue, but rhetoric does matter, we know and I believe anyway, and it is important that I think our leadership now reflects a completely different ethic on this issue and would have reacted so terribly different there.
Teri Yuan: So, from there you found your way to ICAN.
Seth Shelden: Right.
Teri Yuan: Tell us how did you get in. That's kind of a shortcut.
Seth Shelden: That experience, no, sorry, sorry. I mean, that definitely links because it was being there that made me think okay, I know that I need to... I do believe my instinct from what I've read and being interested in this issue for so long is that this is going... nuclear weapons are going to matter in an enormous way again, and that proved to be quickly true. I mean, nobody was talking about, nobody in the U.S. was really talking about nuclear weapons before 2017. And then all of a sudden, and almost immediately, it was back on the table in this major way in terms of world policy. And so I, having seen that coming, knew that I wanted to participate. I knew that the UN was about to start negotiating for some kind of a nuclear weapons ban, and that was a hugely historic move and shift in the way that the nations of the world were thinking about how to deal with nuclear abolition, and I wanted to be a part of it. And I think it's like so many things, some combination of determination, luck and privilege that led me to get into those negotiations and participate. And I joined initially up with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, which I'm now one of the board members of. And once I was there, I quickly started looking to the campaign for things to do and started volunteering and working on everything from helping with research and negotiation to then getting much more involved through campaign leaders such as Daniel Högsta and Tim Wright with lobbying states to support the negotiations, participate in negotiations and then to vote for adoption of the treaty by the middle of that year in July.
Teri Yuan: Can you break down a little bit, you talked about luck, determination and privilege, what the actual steps were that you took once you had the idea that this is something you wanted to pursue?
Seth Shelden: Okay, yeah, sure. I mean, I think as soon as I decided that I could do it, the determination part kicked in and I guess, spent, I think like a week in the library in a library not like looking at books but on like my computer, researching and trying to figure out everyone who was working on this and who the major players were. Luck was that I picked one person to contact. I just chose one and I couldn't have known then that he would be, this is Dr. John Burroughs, who's the executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. I couldn't have really known that that he would be so knowledgeable and such a respected resource and that he would have such a role in the negotiations, but he did, and luck as well that he said, "Yeah, sure, come help me. Here's the badge." And that was it. That was all that it took and privilege that I managed to have both. I think the privilege was him saying that I could do it because he probably looked at my profile, saw my background and said, "Sure, this seems like someone who can help me," but also that I had the opportunity in terms of my time and money to volunteer essentially at first and volunteer full time for so long was, it was not easy for me. But it was more possible than I think for so many people obviously to do that.
Teri Yuan: So once you were engaged and working on the campaign, what were some of the challenges that you faced? How did you move past them?
Seth Shelden: Well, I think I already alluded to the fact that this is not, that being an activist is not a natural fit for me, being I'm an introvert, I don't like talking in public and I don't like talking-
Teri Yuan: You're also a performer.
Seth Shelden: Yeah, well, I mean the great weird dissonance of my life is trying to do things that make me get over the things that I'm not good at. I was saying, I wish I'd taken more math and physics in school too, because I'm not good at it. And I think that that's something I've always trying to do, but don't always do successfully of course, but try and break out of that comfort zone. So yeah, I think that has been and continues to be a big challenge for me, is working through my shyness and learning from these people who I'm sure deal with the same issues but are so inspiring with the way they are activists, they are diplomats, they are policymakers and they are strong. I've learned from so many women and men who have done such an amazing job for their entire lives and themselves stand on the shoulders of course of other people who have worked on nuclear abolition for their entire lives, but are just incredible examples of speaking truth to power and trying to be inspired by them when I can, despite my misgivings about speaking in public or speaking or taking someone on about their strongly held beliefs.
Teri Yuan: So, can you talk about also the treaty itself and what you had hoped to accomplish and where we are now?
Seth Shelden: Yeah, okay, happily. So the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, I have a copy I can pass around actually, because I talked about it, or worked with it in some way every day. It was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly on July 7, 2017 by an overwhelming majority of the world, the vote on July 7th, well, that's a dramatic story right there that I can also tell the day of the adoption was one of the most exciting days in my life. But the vote was 122 states to one with one abstention, and the treaty is the first comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons. Now, that's something that we managed for all other weapons of mass destruction prior to now for chemical weapons and biological weapons, land mines, cluster munitions, but all other weapons of mass destruction except for the most destructive and so that gap, that moral gap, that legal gap was one that this treaty seeks to rectify. By a comprehensive ban, what I mean is that the treaty prohibits every action along the life cycle of a nuclear weapon, developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stationing, stockpiling, using of course and threatening to use importantly, nuclear weapons. It also has what we call positive obligations basically, requirements that nations have to provide assistance to the victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and to remediate environments that have been harmed by or contaminated by nuclear weapons. And it also has other prohibitions, including prohibitions on assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to do anything that's prohibited and that's interpreted very importantly in other treaties anyway, generally speaking to prohibit investment in and other financial support for producers of nuclear weapons. So that's what it is in short. It's a little longer than that. And what's the status of it, you asked. So the treaty is not yet in legal force, it will enter into force once 50 nations have ratified it. At the moment, we have 21 ratifications, which is at least as fast as similar weapons of mass destruction treaties have gone, including what all states referred to as the cornerstone of the nuclear policy world that we live in today, the nuclear non proliferation treaty. And we have 70 signatures on the treaty. And we have, like I said, 122 states that voted to adopt and actually subsequent votes and resolutions at the UN have shown that supportive states are closer to 135. So that's what we're drawing from to get our 50 and that is my main job today, really as I speak to you today, because I wear so many hats, but working at the UN today, I'm working with these states to encourage them and to work with them on getting to their ratification. We hope that we will enter into force within about a year or at the end of the year, I hope, if I can do that work well.
Teri Yuan: So none of the nations that actually have nuclear weapons voted on the treaty. Does that mean that once it's ratified, they're not held to the treaty because they didn't vote on it? How does that work in terms of enforcement?
Seth Shelden: That's right. So the U.S. is not expected to sign or ratify the treaty for some time, sadly. They were given, they had an opportunity, of course to participate in the treaty, and in quite a reversal of the construct that we're used to, it was the U.S. and their NATO allies that stood outside of the General Assembly on the first day of negotiations and held a protest, which struck a lot of people as some sort of strange role reversal. But we certainly did hope that they would participate. But the strategy, ICAN's strategy at the same time contemplated and was prepared for the eventuality that the possessor states, of course, might say that we’d like not to abolish these weapons that we have. And so the strategy has been clear, and clear eyed and realistic about the fact that they would not join and thought, well, if they do not join, then what impact and how can the rest of the world impact the reality of nuclear weapons in the states that actually possess them. And so, we have followed the example of other treaties, other weapons of mass destruction treaties that faced a similar problem and led the way in what we call the humanitarian shift of the disarmament community, which helped change the way we pursued abolition in a way that said, what we can do is have the rest of the world stand up as a coalition against the minority of states that in the case of nuclear weapons, vast minority of states that possess them and pursue them and change the norm around nuclear weapons by agreeing themselves to a nuclear free world. And then what happens? As we've seen with these other treaties, it actually does impact the possessor states, even as much as they protest that it doesn't, even as much as they make the statements that are necessary for them under international law to say, we are here by clarifying that this does not apply to us, that we won't sign it, that we will never sign it. Actually, on the day that it was adopted, the U.S. released a statement together with the UK and France that said, that went further than we even expected them to go in terms of we were prepared for them to say that we do not support this treaty. We won't sign it. They said we will never sign this treaty which reflects, I think, to me how not just hubris but also this fear on their part that they would protest so much to speak for future generations of people who are not yet born yet. We will never as a state sign this treaty. When do we say that? That sounds illogical and a little insane to me. But we have seen with these other treaties that by changing the norm and by changing the economics around the production and possession of weapons, that it has an impact even on those states that did not sign, ratify or even support a treaty like this. And there are a lot of examples of that. We can speak about how with, for example, cluster munitions that the U.S. did not, they resisted both the land mines treaty and the cluster munitions treaty. But even despite that, the last U.S. manufacturer of cluster munitions, I think about two years ago, Textron said they would no longer manufacture cluster munitions, and they're in Rhode Island and they specifically said that, that there was no longer enough of a market due to that treaty and they were trying to re-court investment from people who had pulled out because of that treaty, pulled out of their financing and their investments. So I mean, there's many other examples, like I said. We know that the U.S. Law of War manual, for example, says that U.S. forces shall act consistently with treaties even when the U.S. hasn't signed them if they reflect global public opinion. And conversely, we have seen memos from manufacturers in the nuclear weapons industry who are celebrating the Nuclear Posture Review, Trump's Nuclear Posture Review that said, we will now be reinvesting in nuclear weapons to the tune of $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. So all this to say that we can see the way these treaties and even our treaty already has impacted the way private citizens act and even governments act in states that resist the treaty and we know that it will have an effect on them, until they do join us, which of course, we hope that they eventually will. And there are other ways too, I mean it could provoke, nobody here thinks that adopting or even the entering into force of this treaty is the end. We just wipe our hands and say we did it, that nuclear weapons are now illegal and don't exist if they do. However, we do know that it has the potential to provoke real change in very specific ways.
Teri Yuan: So what's the impact of two weeks ago, when the U.S. pulled out of the INF, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty from 1987? And then Putin a few days later did the same.
Seth Shelden: I think that while there's a lot of potential impacts that our withdrawing and at this point, just saying we're suspending but likely with the intent to eventually withdraw from the INF Treaty, there's a lot of things that can happen from that, a lot of ripple effects that we see right away. But I think our one immediate takeaway is just another sort of example and more evidence to the notion that the U.S. hopes to restart building nuclear weapons, hopes to reinitiate a nuclear arms race, because there were many other options than taking that stance and saying that we're going to withdraw. That choice to take this option to withdraw reflects to me a desire to clear the path for reinvestment in and rebuilding our nuclear arsenal. I don't mean rebuilding like it's gone, but rather rebuilding up our nuclear arsenal in a way that we haven't seen for decades.
Teri Yuan: Yeah. And you started off our conversation talking about how when you were younger, you subscribed to, you were interested in soldiers, et cetera. And that's how you got into war in general, war troops. And so this, I think, is the perfect example of when I saw this news, I posted online this is just a pissing contest.
Seth Shelden: Yeah, you're right.
Teri Yuan: A perfect example of masculinity, basically a competition between the two forces and the dangers of that and why we're having this conversation around gender and disarmament.
Seth Shelden: Yeah. And we should, I suppose, not be under any illusion that we've moved on from a huge patriarchal structure that emphasizes these weapons and has emphasized these weapons since they existed. So that's the real driving problem, I think, is that it's so much work to change the way people think about these weapons to begin with. It was worth for me to change the way I thought about it. So I know what it's like from one perspective. But yeah, that speaks to this fundamental challenge that we have, and speaks to the fact that we're living in this enormously structured patriarchy when it comes to weaponry and so many things but in terms of state policy and arms.
Teri Yuan: Which brings me to the wider topic of philanthropy and gender. So several years ago, there was a plethora of, it seemed to have come all at once, of news around violations in the humanitarian AIDS community in terms of sexual misconduct. There were international aid workers who were accused of sexual assault, not just of sexual harassment of their employees, their staff. And then of course of the people that they were supposedly on the ground to serve and I just want to read something to you about the scandal and have you comment on it. So this happened with, you're familiar with some of these crises obviously.
Seth Shelden: Yeah. Well, I don't know what you're going to say but I think so far I know what you're talking about, yeah.
Teri Yuan: So, quote, “for victims who do manage to speak out, experts say that this culture ‘of toxic masculinity’ can make it very difficult for them to be heard. And there was a UN International Development Committee report that cited harassment and assault as being underreported due to the difficulty of reporting abuse and fear of retaliation in general,” which I think is reflected in all of our systems in larger society and work spaces. So I'm curious, from your experience, is this a topic that is present in the conversations you're having? Are people aware of making explicit connections between gender and sexism and the practices and policies, that they're actually advancing and then the actual work that they're doing in their relationship that they're developing?
Seth Shelden: Yes, in short. There's a great deal of thinking around this issue and these related issues in the disarmament community. And I'm not the best person to speak to them. I should say I'm not an expert when it comes to the gendered impacts and gender issues in this community or with these issues. I would refer to people, from thinkers and writers and feminists and activists from Carol Cohn to Felicity Hill to Ray Acheson and the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom, which is one of the leading thinkers and active organizations in this space. I can speak to some of the things that I've learned from them and perhaps sometimes seen even in my brief time working with this community, but the answer from me is clearly yes, I mean, both at an interpersonal level and even at a nation state level, in terms of the way policy is created and the way people are represented on delegations and the way we think about arms are all incredibly patriarchal and gendered, and to the examples you gave, I mean, there's examples at the civil society level, and certainly I'm sure at the state level I'm less familiar with, of horrible specific incidents that people have been dealing with that have reflected the fact that feminist voices are way under represented in the arms community. So I mean, what we're dealing with is a long history of gendered constructions that basically say that women shouldn't have a seat at the table and feminist viewpoint shouldn't be reflected when it comes to security and arms policy because women are emotional and weak, and also because they are vulnerable and that's the community that we're trying to protect, and because we're living in a zero sum security game, where policy should basically reflect, that the only issue should be who can win in a zero sum game, and then we need to be careful about letting issues such as humanitarian consequences be reflected in our policy or even our discussion around that policy. I mean, there's a story that I know of like third hand through Ray Acheson, but from Carol Cohn, about a U.S. policy maker sitting in a high-level room developing strategy around different war game scenarios and I think I'm not going to get it totally right but they're doing an analysis and somebody says under this pathway, or this strategy, only 3 million people die, and the guy just goes, says “only 3 million,” as if to say that we should all be cognizant in this room that that's something we should all recognize, that that's not a good alternative. And the fact that he felt when he tells a story to Carol Cohn that he says that he feels ashamed. And he's made to feel ostracized, and he's basically disinvited from participating because his reaction to everyone else said that he was weak and feminine. And so that's the construct that we're starting with, and that's what we're working through. And that's very much what I think the movement for humanitarian disarmament and this, what they call the humanitarian shift, as I said, has sought to turn on its head and introduced those voices into the discussion. And to be clear, of course, because I've had to think this through for myself, having joined this community and tried to think, well, first of all, I'm a white cis male. So what is my role here, and how should, what should I do about this and just to emphasize for I mean, probably everyone in this room is more sensitive to this than I am. But just the notion that we're not talking of course always about men and women in this context. We're talking about masculinity and feminism. And those of course are different. And to that point, even I mean while representation of women in state delegations is certainly something that's part of this, it's definitely not all of it. I mean, we've had, there's organizations like Article 36 in our community that has studied what's the representation of women on state delegations for instance, to demonstrate how badly in most cases women are represented in disarmament delegations. But with the realization that that's not the end of the issue, of course. I mean, we're not looking to, if the only thing we changed was the way that they're putting more women in a delegation, if those women rose to power in a structure that was masculine, then we're not through the woods with this problem in any way. So it's really about the perspectives, and that's an opportunity for people of all genders of course to work with.
Teri Yuan: So in a moment, we're going to open up to the audience, to the students for questions. But before that, I always end my conversations with my guests with the Engendered questionnaire, which I ask all of my guests. I've adapted it from the Inside the Actors Studio questionnaire, which you probably are familiar with as an actor. You're probably a fan of James Lipton.
Seth Shelden: I don't have a favorite word.
Teri Yuan: So first question, what is at stake in the struggle to end gender-based violence and oppression?
Seth Shelden: Well, I guess I could say that there's a range of things at stake here. At the very least, that stake is the life and safety of those who are oppressed by the structure in place, together with the opportunity for a more rich and full existence by those who are not oppressed. But if that's not enough for you at the other end of the spectrum at the maximum, and I mean sincerely that I think that what's at stake is life itself, civilization, because as I was just saying, I think that having a non-patriarchal approach to security in my opinion, is the key to changing the environment to make a more cooperative environment in world security in a way that is necessary to achieve change and a lasting peace.
Teri Yuan: What gives you hope?
Seth Shelden: What gives me hope? So many things. My nephew, the Parkland students, as you said, today is the one year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre and their work has been really inspiring, so many women taking the Congress in 2018 and our treaty. I could say to that question, so on July 7, 2017, the day that the treaty was adopted, all the states got to go around and make statements about why they voted how they voted, and the Irish foreign minister, this really stuck with me, the Irish foreign minister, he quoted an Irish poet Seamus Heaney in his remarks and made this distinction that's really stuck with me. And I'm not going to get it word for word, but it's something like he's distinguishing hope from optimism. So you asked about hope, and he says, and this is this important semantic difference for me now is he says, hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well. That's what optimism is but hope is rather something that's more rooted in the conviction that there's a good that's worth fighting for. And I thought that was quite profound. I'm optimistic that this treaty will enter into force. That's what I'm working on. And I'm hopeful that humanity will see a way to, it's two great existential threats that we're dealing with right now, climate change and nuclear weapons, both of our own making, and these are the only two right now. I mean, these are the two that we should all be focused on, I believe, and I believe too that we can solve them, so I hope that we use our great ingenuity, we created these problems and we can end them. I believe in the power of humanity to save us from the power of humanity.
Teri Yuan: Final question, what can we do more of, less of, start, or stop as individuals or as a society to end gender-based violence?
Seth Shelden: Well, I feel like that's an opportunity for me to tell everyone what they can do to support our agenda, because I do think that, I do think, again not being an authority in any way on gender related issues, but I do think that these things go hand in hand. I do think again, that South Africa in their statement on that July 7, by the way, this isn't the first time they said this, but they coined the term nuclear apartheid, talking about the great power that the nuclear possessor states have and utilize over those states that don't. And so if you see that nexus, if you see the intersectionality there, and I mean, I don't even speak specifically to you but you’re public health students, if you are, I think you are, we have many arguments to make about the impact of not just the use of a nuclear weapon in warfare, but even the development of nuclear weapons, the maintenance of these arsenals, the testing, of course of nuclear weapons and its great impact on public health. I hope that I can help people find, and I haven't spoken that much about it here, but the way that their cause intersects with our cause. So if you believe that, then to your question, what can you do, you can join us. I mean, I'm a member, a campaigner for ICAN, but I told you how I got to it and anyone can, in theory. You need to go to our nuclearban.org, and you can sign up and join for updates on actions globally and locally. That's our international organization. We have many, ICAN, I didn't really set this up, but it's a giant campaign comprised of, I think it's now 532 partner organizations in I think 103 countries at the moment. So in the U.S., we have many partners. You can look at nuclearban.us for U.S. related actions. You can ask your Congress people to sign our parliamentary pledge, which is a commitment by legislators to work for their government to join the treaty. That's on the ICAN website. You can ask your mayors and your city council members to join the ICAN City Appeal to say that your city aligns with the treaty. You can work to divest your own money but also your city's money and your financial institution's and your school's money here from the companies that finance nuclear weapons. We have a project and I'm working on one specifically in New York. But overall, Don't Bank on the Bomb project and report addresses. This, you can read the treaty, you can talk about the treaty, you can change the way we talk about nuclear weapons. We may not today be able to knock on the White House door and stop the way that Trump and Kim Jong Un engage each other about, you know threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. But by bringing about a change in the way we talk about this issue individually, especially as Americans to the extent we're Americans here, we can change the way we engage on a broader scale, and stop future leaders from behaving this way. So those are some of the things we can do.
Teri Yuan: That's a lot, so thank you. Thank you so much, Seth.
Seth Shelden: Yeah, thank you.