Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Missing Half at the UN

Last week’s meeting at the the United Nations was remarkable for a number of reasons.  As discussed in an earlier post, this meeting under the Convention on Conventional Weapons was the first international discussions on autonomous weapons systems; this meeting was held less than a year and a half after the first report on the topic was released and this meeting brought together 87 states to discuss an emerging technology.  The meeting was also remarkable for the shocking lack of women invited to speak.

There were 18 experts invited to give presentations to the delegates and all of them were men.  Now that might sound like a story line from the final season of Mad Men, but sadly we are talking about a large diplomatic meeting hosted by the United Nations in 2014, not the exploits of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce in 1965.  The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots highlighted that the provisional agenda was unbalanced and suggested numerous possible experts who are leaders in their fields and who are women. And yet the panels proceeded as planned, leaving women, as Matthew Bolton put it, “literally condemned to the margins — only allowed to speak in civil society statements from the back of the room or ‘Side Events’.”

In the opening debate, civil society representatives and Norway commented on the gender disparity and later Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings, also commented on the lack of women presenting.  Throughout the meeting, women contributed greatly to the discussion through side-events, statements and interventions when permitted by the meeting’s chair.  Also, many of the memos and papers provided by civil society were written or co-authored by women.

Civil society including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has taken action to address this anachronistic situation. Sarah Knuckey began compiling a list of women working, writing and speaking on autonomous weapons – the list currently includes over 25 names and growing.  Article 36, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, is compiling a list of people working in the field of peace and security – particularly disarmament, arms control and the protection of civilians – who benefit from their male gender and have committed not to speak on panels that include only men.  They say:

We believe that the practice of selecting only men to speak on panels in global policymaking forums is unjust. It excludes the voices of women and other gender identities from such events, running counter to UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which commits to inclusion of women in discussions on peace and security. Global policymaking efforts on peace and security – including disarmament, arms control and the protection of civilians – must include people of a diversity of gender identities.

Mines Action Canada supports this new effort and encourages others working in this field who identify as men to join the initiative. The gender disparity at the meeting was so glaring that Motherboard covered the issue and the story was picked up by i09.  As someone with a passing interest in the construction of ideas and norms, the discussion surrounding this issue on io9 is very interesting.  I read the internet comments so you don’t have to and there are a few aspects of that online conversation I would like to address.

First up is the frequent comment – why does gender matter when discussing autonomous weapons? Having only men invited to speak at the UN as experts on autonomous weapons and gender considerations at the CCW matters for a number of reasons. I feel ridiculous listing reasons why women should be included in global policy making forums since it is (as stated above) 2014 not 1965 but for brevity’s sake here’s a couple of reasons unique to the autonomous weapons discussion:

  • The United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000 vowing to include women in global policy making on peace and security.  Resolution 1325 calls on states to “ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.” Having no women presenting at a UN meeting on an emerging weapon seems pretty contrary to Resolution 1325.
  • The growing consensus is autonomous weapons are a ‘game-changer’ or something that will fundamentally alter the nature of warfare globally.  We need to have wide-spread discussions about the role of humanity in conflict.  To only have (mostly Western  middle-aged) men speak on a topic that will have a dramatic impact on lives around the world is missing a large number of voices crucial to the needed discussion.
  • Proponents of autonomous weapons are saying they will be good for humanity because robots will not commit war crimes and specifically robots will not rape.  Charli Carpenter has an excellent piece dismantling the “robots won’t rape” argument where she points out that that rape is not just a crime of passion by one rogue soldier or a deranged warlord but often rape and other war crimes are ordered by the state.  Furthermore, the idea that rape victims and women’s bodies in general are being used for political gain in a male-dominated discussion about new weapon technology is abhorrent.

Another common line of commenting on this story was the idea that they got the best experts to present on these topics and unfortunately when it comes to things like science and engineering most of the experts are men.  Well since this is not the place to discuss why there are more men than women in STEM fields, I’ll move on to the assertion that they got the best experts to present. I don’t have to say much because Sarah Knuckey’s list has made it quite clear there are a number of women who are top of their fields and “experts” on the subject matter discussed last week.  But it is worth highlighting that the Harvard-based legal scholar who wrote the first report on the legal arguments surrounding autonomous weapons launching the global discussion (and who is a woman) was not included in either panel discussing legal issues.  Another troubling part of this idea is the decisions over autonomy and human control in conflict should be only handled by experts in technical fields like computer science.  The potential impact of autonomous weapons necessitates in-depth technical, legal, ethical and moral analysis.  A perceived gender imbalance in STEM does not justify only hearing from men on all topics of discussion.

I have ignored many of the blatantly misogynistic comments on the io9 piece about the lack of women at CCW and the work of obvious trolls but there is one more theme in the comments I would like to address.  More than one commenter stated something like “if they overlooked people that were more qualified to be present then it absolutely needs to be addressed [emphasis mine].”  The idea that women have to be better than men before their opinion should be taken into consideration is rather insidious.  It can be linked to the so-called confidence gap between men and women among other aspects of gender dynamics in the workplace.  I see this idea even in my own life – just last week, I did extra reading prior to a meeting because I felt that, as a young woman, I needed to know the topic better than anyone else before they would take me seriously.  One of the lessons I will take from this discussion of gender in global policy development spawned by the lack of women at the CCW meeting is that it is beyond time to ask the question why should a woman have to be more qualified rather than just as qualified as a man to be considered an expert?

Last week’s CCW meeting made much progress in the global discussion of autonomous weapons systems despite the regressive gender dynamics but we cannot continue on that path without recognizing the capabilities and expertise offered by women. We cannot continue to miss half the conversation. Civil society is taking action to improve gender representation in policy making and the media has recognized women as experts on this topic on numerous occasions so now it is up to the states.  It is time for states to get serious about implementing Resolution 1325.  It is time for states to hear more than half the story.

Update May 23: the International Committee for Robot Arms Control has listed their world leading female experts to prevent anyone using the excuse that there are no suitable women experts.

UN Talks Recap

Campaigners outside the UN in Geneva (via Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

Campaigners outside the UN in Geneva (via Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

Last week, 87 states gathered in Geneva to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems.

This Informal Experts Meeting ran from May 13 to May 16 and was the first international discussion on autonomous weapons systems.  The meeting was focused on information rather than decision making.  The 87 states attended the meeting under the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW)  along with representatives from UN agencies including UNIDIR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and registered non-governmental organizations including the delegation of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

The four day meeting included general debate and then substantive sessions with presentations from experts.  The Chair’s summary showed that there is a willingness to pursue this topic and a possible issue for the next meetings would be the concept of meaningful human control.  The options for going forward cited include exchange of information, development of best practices, moratorium on  research, and a ban.  The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has a great piece about the meeting on their website.

Over the course of the week many states highlighted the importance of always maintaining meaningful human control over targeting and attack decisions.  We are MAC were not only pleased that 5 countries have already called for a ban, but also that no country vigorously defended or argued for autonomous systems weapons although Czech Republic and Israel each spoke on the desirability of such systems.

Unlike most countries, Canada has not yet provided copies of their statements to Reaching Critical Will or to the United Nations so we have had to piece together the statements from the CCW Review and Twitter.  On day 1, Canada was the only country to say that existing international humanitarian law is sufficient to regulate the use of autonomous weapons.  It also said that the definition of autonomy is difficult as autonomy is subjective depending on the system. On day 2, Canada said that the moral aspects of autonomous weapons are important and must be part of discussions in CCW.  It looks like Canada did not make any statements or interventions on Day 3.  On day 4, Canada called for more discussion on the ethical and political issues including meaningful human control under the CCW.  Canada also said humanitarian and state security concerns must be balanced in considering autonomous weapons – which is language usually heard from Russia, China and similar states.

Some of the presentations from the substantive sessions are available online:

Technological Issues – key topics included definitions of autonomy and meaningful human control.  Included a debate between Ron Arkin who believes that it is pre-mature to ban autonomous weapons and Noel Sharkey who does not believe that computerised weapons without a human in control can fully comply with international humanitarian law in the foreseeable future.

Ethics and Sociology – key topics included if machines should make the decision to take a human life, the relevance of human judgement to international law and the need for human control.

Legal Issues (International Humanitarian Law) – key topics included definitions, whether or not autonomous weapons systems are inherently illegal, morality and military effectiveness.  This was an extensive debate.

Legal Issues (other areas of international law) – key topics included human rights law, accountability and article 36 weapons reviews.

Operational and military issues – key topics included meaningful human control, military effectiveness and the nature of warfare.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots held side events each day to delve deeper into the issues at hand.  These side events were well attended and lively discussions covered the topics at hand in greater depth.

While the meetings were progressing in Geneva here at the national level Mines Action Canada was working to ensure these historic sessions reached media coverage across Canada.  For example:

CCW member states will reconvene in November to decide if they want to continue these talks.  Until then Mines Action Canada and our colleagues in the international campaign will continue to push for a renewed and expanded mandate including continued discussions on meaningful human control over all targeting and firing decisions.

Memo to CCW Delegates

With states and experts converging on Geneva this week for the first international talks about killer robots, Mines Action Canada has released a new memorandum to Convention on Conventional Weapons delegates.

The memo shares lessons learnt from the process that resulted in Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons which was a pre-emptive ban on a weapon due to humanitarian concerns.  Protocol IV shows that pre-emptive bans (like the one called for by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots) are possible under the Convention on Conventional Weapons.  Download the Protocol IV Memo now.