Designing Against Evil

On Thursday 9th November, Jonathan Luke Austin (Lead Researcher at the Violence Prevention Initiative) presented findings from the Initiative in a lecture entitled ‘Designing Against Evil: Breakthroughs in Violence Prevention.’

The lecture was followed by a panel discussion with Professors Keith Krause and Anna Leander of the Graduate Institute and Vincent Ballon, Head of the Detention Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.

The discussion was deeply stimulating and the event well attended by a diverse audience of students, academics, and practitioners. A full video of the lecture will be available here soon.


Publication | Becoming a Torturer

The VIPRE Initiative’s latest publication Becoming a Torturer: Towards a Global Ergonomics of Care is now available. Published within the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Review, this peer-reviewed publication draws on Lead Researcher of VIPRE Jonathan Luke Austin’s theoretical understanding of the process by which individuals unintentionally carry out aberrant violences like torture. Combined with primary source accounts of torturers, the article lays out the paradoxical need to combine punitive, justice-orientated, and rights-based approaches to preventing torture with a comprehensive societal mechanism of ‘caring’ for torturers themselves.

The article is available from the Review webpage here, or can be downloaded directly below.


VIPRE Concept Note | The Germination of Abusive Violence

The VIPRE Initiative’s latest publication is now available, below or by clicking here. The concept note lays out the contours of the Initiative for both interested academics and practitioners.


The Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative explores novel approaches to preventing violent abuses carried out most frequently by state agents in contexts of conflict. The Initiative suggests that it is possible to prevent such abuses in a similar way to that in which we prevent, or minimize the damage caused by, public health problems like traffic accidents, smoking, alcoholism, infectious diseases, or firearm-related deaths. Efforts to  prevent these problems focus not simply on the ‘original causes’ of harm (driving while intoxicated, for example) but also on mitigating the risk of harm and/or damage inflicted once these original causes are set in motion by placing ‘intervening’ obstacles or ‘firewalls’ in  front of these risks/harms (constructing crash barriers on roads or cars that beep when seatbelts are not worn, for example). Drawing on cutting-edge insights from sociology, neuroscience, philosophy, and social theory, VIPRE focuses on constructing similar ‘firewalls’ vis-à-vis political violences like torture, the targeting of civilians and genocide.

Two PhD Students Join VIPRE

The VIPRE Initiative is very pleased to have recruited two new doctoral students to join its team as Research Assistants for the project. The two PhD students – Alice Baroni and Basil Farraj – are both very promising young researchers whose own interests overlap with, complement, and extend those of the VIPRE Initiative. The doctoral candidates will work closely with the Lead Researcher, Jonathan Luke Austin, to carry out the core research of the Initiative over the next four years. More information on Alice and Basil is available below.

Alice Baroni
Doctoral Candidate

Alice Baroni is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, and a Research Assistant for the Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative. Alice’s work investigates the way in which settler colonial ideologies inform security policies through discursive practices, with a comparative focus on Israel and the United States. Her work is situated at the intersection between security studies, political sociology and belief systems theory. Alice has previously worked as a research consultant and as a project officer for non-governmental organizations both in Italy and Palestine.  

Basil Farraj
Doctoral Candidate

Basil Farraj is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and a research assistant for the VIPRE Initiative. Basil’s work focuses on political prisoners, violence directed against them, and ways in which they resist the incarcerating regimes. His work reaches for the intersections of memory, resistance and art by prisoners and others at the receiving end of violence. Basil has previously conducted fieldwork in a number of countries including Chile and Colombia.

VIPRE Board Expands

The VIPRE Initiative has the pleasure of announcing its significantly expanded scientific advisory board. At present, we have the privilege of being associated with the leading scholars listed below. Each possesses particular expertise of relevance to the VIPRE initiative, including: field defining work on the theory and method of critical approaches to IR and IPS (Huysmans), substantial contributions to security studies (Wæver), path-breaking use of sociological thought to bring forward central IR debates (Adler-Nissen), field-leading work on the use of ‘practice theory’ in combination with key empirical topics of relevance to IR (Bueger), work of great importance to expanding theoretical and empirical work on materiality and critical security studies within IR (Salter), and field-shifting work on practice theory within IR (Pouliot).

The members of the scientific advisory board will be regularly consulted for their advice, opinions, and critiques of the work of the Initiative. We will also draw them together in person at several VIPRE-hosted (writing) workshops.

Jef Huysmans Professor, Queen Mary University London.
Ole Wæver Professor, Copenhagen University
Rebecca Adler-Nissen Professor, Copenhagen University.
Christian Bueger
Reader, Cardiff University.
Mark Salter
Professor, University of Ottawa.
Vincent Pouliot Professor, McGill University

The Initiative is privileged to have such a renowned set of scholars affiliated with its work. Moving forward, the Initiative plans to expand its practitioner board substantially.

VIPRE at the International Studies Association

A few weeks ago, the Lead Researcher of the VIPRE Initiative – Jonathan Luke Austin – participated in several events at the annual International Studies Association conference in Baltimore. Austin presented several core papers relating to the VIPRE Initiative including one entitled Logics of Change-Making in World Politics that lays out the programmatic intellectual basis for the VIPRE Initiative. Beyond that presentation, Austin presented several papers relating to ‘critique’ and the connections between critical perspectives to the study of negative world political phenomena and their policy implementation. He also participated in a workshop on International Practice Theory in IR, led by Christian Bueger, Alena Drieschova, and Ted Hopf, which – with fellow VIPRE Initiative principal Anna Leander – will result in a published chapter in a forthcoming edited volume bringing together leading IR scholars working on the practice turn. For further details on that volume see here.

Torture and Counter-Terrorism in Nairobi

Recent investigative journalism reports have uncovered disturbing evidence of torture, enforced disappearances, and other forms of human rights abuses occurring at the hands of US-funded police and intelligence agencies in Kenya (as well as across Africa).

Research from the Angaza Foundation for African Reporting has traced the connections between these instances of abuse to US-funded counter-terrorism strategies being implemented across Africa. These counter-terrorism units have emerged in order to fight the militant group Al-Shabab, which recruits among Kenyans. In particular, the Kenyan Defence Force and the anti-terrorism police unit in the country have been largely US-funded and accused of torture, enforced disappearances, and summary executions.

One account, provided by the Guardian runs as follows:

Just before his torturers pushed him out of the van, barely conscious, on to the Nairobi pavement, Abdi was told he was one of the lucky ones: “You were supposed to die tonight. Abdi said he was walking out of the university where he studied in 2015 when a car, modified to operate as a mobile torture unit, pulled up next to him, and a gun with a silencer was pointed at his face. As Abdi was restrained he was told by men who identified themselves as police that he had been under surveillance for years. His interrogators were suspicious because he was living in a house outside Eastleigh, Nairobi’s predominantly Somali suburb. They kept asking: “Are you trying to recruit for al-Shabaab? Whenever they did not like an answer they shocked him with an industrial cattle prod, he says, estimating that the whole ordeal lasted for seven hours.

Much of the evidence cited in this case supports key conceptual and empirical concerns of the VIPRE Initiative. Specifically:

1. The transnational or circulatory structure of torture and other practices of political  violence as being intimately related to training regimes that cross borders. See Austin (2016).

2. The fact, nonetheless, that training regimes which run across borders only very rarely involve direct training in torture, instead serving to create ‘enabling environments’ in which torture emerges through complex and contingent patterns of situational interaction rather than any particular ‘decision’ to engage in this act. See Austin (2017a).

3. The ways in which – despite the lack of training and ‘orders’ to torture – the micro-practical techniques employed in torture have been globalised across borders. Here, the use of an ‘industrial cattle prod’ to inflict pain is simply a repetition of a far more global practice. See Austin (2016) & Rejali (2003).

4. The ways in which the ‘materiality’ of social settings is key to torture, as exemplified here by the use of a “mobile torture unit” due to the absence of dedicated facilities to carry out this form of violence. Precisely the same procedure occurred in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, for example. See Austin (2017b).

Swiss National Science Foundation funds VIPRE

The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has awarded funding of CHF 1,070,688 to support a four-year research project based at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP). The project, the Violence Prevention (VIPRE) Initiative, explores novel approaches to preventing state-led political violence. It suggests that it is possible to prevent political violence in a similar way to that by which we prevent, or minimise the damage caused by, public health problems like traffic accidents, smoking, alcoholism, infectious diseases or firearm-related deaths. Efforts to prevent these problems focus not simply on the “original causes” of harm (driving while intoxicated, for example) but also on mitigating the risk of harm and/or damage inflicted once these original causes are set in motion by placing “intervening” obstacles or “firewalls” in front of these risks/harms (constructing crash barriers on roads or cars that beep when seatbelts are not worn, for example). The VIPRE Initiative will theorise, empirically explore, and test the possibility of constructing similar barriers or firewalls vis-à-vis political violence by drawing on interdisciplinary insights from organisation studies, the microsociological study of violence and International Political Sociology.