Alex Holder, Socio-legal Studies, University of Liverpool (2017 Cohort)
Despite the ongoing disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, between June and January of this year I was fortunate enough to undertake a six-month internship with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a Manchester-based NGO which has been working in the mine action sector since 1989. For more than 30 years, MAG’s work has primarily involved the ‘clearance’ of landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs from areas affected by conflict all over the world. In addition to its clearance activities, MAG also engages extensively in weapons and ammunition management, risk education, as well as advocacy and campaigning relating to a number of humanitarian issues.
Over the course of the internship, my work generally related to this latter aspect of MAG’s agenda. I was embedded in the ‘Policy and Influence’ team, whose efforts are directed towards a range of issues relating to mine action, violence and conflict, sustainable development, crisis response, and humanitarian disarmament. In the time I spent with MAG, the team’s already broad policy agenda was being further expanded as issues relating to autonomous weapons cemented themselves as a central concern within the humanitarian sector. At the same time, a political declaration relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas was entering the final stages of negotiation. As such, I was working with the Policy and Influence team during an extremely busy period, though this proved fortuitous from my perspective insofar as I was able to gain experience working on a range of issues which bear heavily upon my PhD research.
When I first began working with the MAG in January, the policy and influence team were in the early stages of assessing the significance of developments in autonomy for MAG, though there remained a great deal of work to be done. The team were generous in allowing me to independently investigate the implications of developments in autonomy for MAG’s work, and I spent much of my time working on a report which detailed my findings. In June, I presented some of my research as part of the ‘MAG talks’ series, where it was seen by staff from all over the world. Though there is, of course, a great deal which goes into making informed policy decisions relating to emerging technologies, it is my hope that the report will be of some assistance as the landscape surrounding autonomous weapons continues to develop.
My experience with the negotiations for the development of a political declaration relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas was quite different. For one thing, it was far more collaborative. I was able to see the ways in which the team prepared and made statements as part of negotiations; the ways in which social media engagement was handled in real time; and the ways in which MAG coordinated with the wider humanitarian sector to ensure that everyone was adequately represented and that specific organisations were able to target their own agendas. Though my own role in this process was minor, it was an invaluable learning opportunity. In its own way, my PhD research bears heavily upon issues relating to the use of explosive weapons, and it is vital that my work remains directed towards those settings in which my findings might find practical application. In this regard, gaining an insight into the practical work of organisations like MAG is an opportunity that cannot easily be replicated, providing a vital reminder that my academic research should, at all times, remain rooted in real-world concerns.
As a final word, I should emphasise the role of the NWSSDTP in this process. The additional funding offered in support of internships is extremely generous, offering the opportunity for students to work with organisations for extended periods without placing additional financial strain on either the student or the host organisation. The value of this arrangement cannot be overstated, as it allows for the development of working relationships that simply would not be feasible in other circumstances. I have no doubt that I have benefitted considerably from my time with MAG – professionally, academically, and personally – and I would strongly encourage others to seek out similar opportunities.