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.

Posted on May 21, 2014, in Program Officer and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The problem of killer robots and their threat to humanity must be addressed very soon! Google is quickly buying up many robotics companies and are advancing quickly. And I have developed the basis for robotic sight … soon robots will see better than you or I and will recognize both materials and individuals. We really must fight for our rights to personal security!

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