Refugee resettlement as humanitarian governance: The need for a critical research agenda

Written by Adèle Garnier (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (UiO/PRIO), and Liliana Lyra Jubilut (Universidade Católica de Santos, Brazil)

This blog post suggests understanding refugee resettlement as an instrument of humanitarian governance from the selection of refugees to their long-term integration. It presents a five-point research agenda aiming to investigate resettlement’s power dynamics in multiscalar perspective, with a focus on: political economy; the UNHCR’s competing goals; and the role of discretion, persuasion and coercion in resettlement’s discourse and practice.

Refugee resettlement can be described as the orderly and long-term relocation to safety of individuals in dire need of protection. It is one of three durable solutions in the international refugee regime (in addition to local integration and voluntary repatriation). After years of neglect at the end of the Cold War, refugee resettlement has experienced a resurgence since the early 2000s. This is largely due to UNHCR’s stronger organizational leadership but also to the increasing number of participating states (16 in 2008, 26 in 2014 according to UNHCR statistical yearbooks) and to the expanding involvement of private partners. As displacement is globally reaching unprecedented levels, and as Europe is struggling to respond to the increased inflow of refugees since 2015, refugee resettlement is attracting political attention, and will be for instance a key item of the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis organized as a side event to the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

While resettlement is considered a response to a humanitarian crisis – in this case forced displacement – it has received little critical attention as an instrument of humanitarian governance, with scant conceptual focus on the interface between power and protection. There is also a lack of research into specific selection programs and processes and insufficient understanding of how the political constriction of resettlement has shifted over time; for instance, by being or not being a durable solution of last resort, or focusing more on groups or individuals. Because of these research gaps, we argue that there is a need for a closer look at how power dynamics, including forms of power with others (such as persuasion) and over others (such as coercion), shape refugee resettlement as an instrument of humanitarian governance.

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Transitional Justice: What is the role of law in bringing imaginative and imaginary peace to Colombia?

This blog post is based on a reflection presented at the “Transitional Justice as Legal Field, Site and Imagination” panel at the Transnational Law Summer Institute, Kings College, London June 29, 2016. I am grateful to Prabha Kotiswaran and Peer Zumbansen for the invitation.  

What is the role of law in bringing imaginative and imaginary peace to Colombia?

June 23 2016 was described by Colombian and international media as the “last day of the war”, adopting FARC’s hashtag #ElÚltimoDíaDeLaGuerra. The signing of a bilateral ceasefire between the Colombian government and FARC formally ended hostilities in the world’s longest running war. The signing of a peace agreement is expected to take place during the summer of 2016.

To the overlapping academic fields of human rights, transitional justice and post-conflict reconstruction, the sophisticated Colombian transitional justice process is attractive and will likely be highly influential for the coming decade, both as an example of success and of failure. There is also a significant risk that scholars (outside Colombia) will embrace the Colombian experience either deterministically — as an example of systemic yet de-historicized power imbalances — or as a fantastical  and outsized legal progress narrative that can serve as an endless source of political models, constitutional processes and legal arguments suitable for embellishing the transitional justice juggernaut.

My argument in the following is based on one big supposition: I will put forward the idea that approached from a law and social change perspective, the Colombian transitional justice project is necessarily a failure foreseen.

“Everybody” knows that positive peace is not going to happen through legislation, decisions by a progressive Colombia Constitutional Court or the signing of a formal agreement. This Everybody also knows that if positive peace happens, it will not happen soon.  At the same time, it is easy to imagine that a year from now, politicians, ordinary Colombians, pundits and academics will dismiss the transitional justice legislation and the peace agreement as partial or total failures for their inability to perform the impossible expected by the Everybody; namely ending violence, providing reparations and changing the structural inequality that is the source of much of the violence.

However, I think that precisely at this juncture, as a community professionally engaged in the business of imagining peace and transitional justice, we need to reflect on what the critical takeaways from and beyond this failure foreseen could be. We may find that imagined and imaginative outcomes turn out to be imaginary. But this is not enough, it’s not even a starting point. We need to go beyond that.

Hence, after briefly describing the Colombian peace process, I will map out three sets of issues that could serve as tentative points of departure for critical reflection. This includes:

  • How we can gauge the meaning of the Colombian transitional justice process for Colombian citizenry, citizenship and the state;
  • The implications of Colombia being both outlaw and legal outlier for how we consider the role and place of the law in creating durable peace;
  • A first attempt to think through some of the general lessons Colombia can have for transitional justice practice and scholarship.

Peace and conflict as statecraft

The armed conflict between the government and FARC began in 1964. Separate negotiations have previously led to the demobilization of smaller guerillas (MAQL, M-19; EPL) and an agenda for formal negotiations has now been agreed with ELN.  However, Colombia has been at war or seen violent societal conflict for most of the time since the late 1890s. Colombian peace processes and attempts at political, legal and land reform are a fixture of Colombian statecraft. The last round of peace talks with FARC ended with fiasco in 2002. From 2003 president Uribe engaged in a much-criticized effort to demobilize the paramilitary AUC, with a basis in the 2005 Justice and Peace Law. Despite its shortcomings, it must be remembered that this framework has provided a platform for the current process.

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The humanitarian quest for accountability: Examining the role of UNHCR

UNHCR 2015: A difficult crisis

The European refugee crisis has been a difficult experience for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On the one hand, UNHCR has been criticized by civil society and the humanitarian community for not being present on Greek islands. On the other hand, the organization has experienced difficulties in negotiating this access with Greek authorities. In addition to criticism of UNHCRs actions/inactions in Greece, the organization also faced criticism for not doing enough to push states across Europe to admit a bigger responsibility for the refugee crisis, and to accept greater numbers of refugees for resettlement.

In the fall of 2015, there was explicit criticism of previous High Commissioner of Refugees, Antonio Guterres, as it was argued that his ambitions of becoming the new United Nations Secretary General was getting in the way of confronting European states more explicitly to  ensure that they live up to their responsibility as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention:

“The heads of U.N. agencies with ‘well-nourished careers’ prefer to ‘put out cutesy heart-warming videos’ about individual refugees rather than criticize governments… They want another U.N. job … And they won’t get it if they piss governments off. You have to start shaming governments. That’s how things get done.”

Laying a new path under high commissioner Grandi?

Now things may be changing. Prior to the much debated EU-Turkey refugee deal, the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated that the potential refugee bottleneck in Greece was a major topic of discussion. And during a February 2016 visit to Athens, he took the opportunity to criticize “the border closures and the inability of European countries to face the refugee crisis with generosity and unity”. Only weeks later (in March 2016), the organization explicitly distanced itself from the EU-Turkey plan, as potentially undermining the tenants of international refugee protection.

Arguably this marks a shift in how UNHCR interprets and enacts its function as a key international actor tasked with the important job of holding states accountable to their commitments to international refugee protection (1951 Convention). And now that the EU-Turkey deal has become is a reality, it is certainly worth noticing that UNHCR was not part of the deal making. Instead, UNHCR is now looking to the future: “Let’s see what the European courts has to say on this,” said Vincent Cochetel, who is leading the UNHCR’s response to the crisis in Europe. A deal might be legal if Turkey overhauls its asylum system and guarantees that those returned are not kept in detention and are given a proper chance of claiming refuge, which is not currently the case, says Mr Cochetel. Other than Europeans, only Syrians have any right to claim shelter in Turkey under its current system. Accordingly, in line with UNHCR’s policy on opposing mandatory detention, the organization has suspended provision of transport to and from detention sites on Greek islands, and has also expressed concern that Greece may have deported asylum seekers by mistake, in violation of international law.

Good Enough Accountability as existential challenge

These contradictory examples illustrate what amounts to an existential challenge not only for UNHCR, but for the humanitarian enterprise as a whole, namely the quest for good enough accountability.  In situations where the host state may be unable or unwilling to protect civilians, humanitarians step in to provide governance, care and protection. With a record-high number of humanitarian emergencies and displaced individuals worldwide, there are more humanitarian organizations doing more things in more places than ever before. They are not elected and are mostly unencumbered by legal obligations towards the communities they proclaim to work for. While the humanitarian sector has developed its own ‘accountability-industry’, humanitarians continue to express concern about how accountability-initiatives are skewed towards donors, at the expense of accountability towards crisis-affected communities and individuals. At the same time, there is deep disagreement about what good enough accountability might look like, how it might be achieved and what resources humanitarians and donors would be willing to invest towards reaching a satisfactory level of accountability.

A knowledge gap: Conceptualizing the history and ‘technologies of accountability’

Despite the key importance of accountability for the legitimacy of humanitarian action, inadequate academic attention has been given to how the concept of accountability is evolving within the specific branches of the humanitarian enterprise. Up to now, there exists no comprehensive account of what we label the ‘technologies of accountability’, the effects of their interaction, or the question of how the current turn to decision-making software and biometrics as both the means and ends of accountability may contribute to reshaping humanitarian governance.

In a recent book, UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: Technology, Law and Results-Based Management (Routledge Humanitarian Studies series) we explore UNHCR’s quest for accountability by viewing the UNHCR’s accountability obligations through the web of institutional relationships within which the agency is placed (beneficiaries, host governments, implementing partners, donors, the Executive Committee and UNGA). The book takes a multidisciplinary approach in order to illuminate the various layers and relationships that constitute accountability and also to reflect on what constitutes good enough accountability.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction: The Quest for an Accountability Cure Katja Lindskov Jacobsen & Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
  • UNHCR and the Complexity of Accountability in the Global Space Niamh Kinchin
  • Advancing UNHCR Accountability through the Law of International Responsibility Maja Janmyr
  • Narratives of accountability in UNHCR’s refugee resettlement strategy Adèle Garnier
  • UNHCR and accountability for IDP protection in Colombia Miriam Bradley
  • Universalizing the refugee category and struggling for accountability: the every-day work of eligibility officers within UNHCR Marion Fresia and Andreas von Känel
  • Accounting for the Past, A history of refugee management in Uganda, 1959-64 Ashley B. Rockenbach
  • How accountability technologies shape international protection: results-based management and rights-based approaches revisited Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
  • UNHCR, Accountability and Refugee Biometrics Katja Lindskov Jacobsen


Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is an Associate Professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law at University of Oslo and a Senior Researcher at PRIO.

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen is Senior Researcher at The Centre for Military Studies at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science.

Tailoring Protection of Civilians to State Capacity:The Role of Regional Human Rights Protection Measures

Julieta Lemaitre (Associate Professor at Universidad de Los Andes) and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (Senior Researcher PRIO and Director for the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies)

The 2016 UN Agenda for Humanity states that minimizing human suffering and protecting civilians requires strengthening compliance with international law. In response to this call, a new PRIO policy brief offers a complementary vision of protection of civilians (PoC) as a spectrum of possibilities that includes local self-protection efforts, legal strategies, and the practice of judicial and quasi-judicial bodies. The approach is illustrated by the life-cycle of the protection measures ordered for the Colombian Kankuamo by the Inter-American human rights system.

Today, many contemporary armed conflicts and threats to civilians coexist with existing state bureaucracies and civil societies, however fragile. Hence there is a more general need for a better understanding of legal protection measures in relation to the goal of protecting civilians in armed conflicts and the goal of strengthening state capacity to abide by the rule of law.

The PoC agenda arrived at the scene of international politics as a central normative ambition only at the end of the Cold War. When picked up in reaction to the civilian suffering in civil wars and genocide throughout the 1990s, PoC was transformed from a set of limited legal regulations and a doctrine pertaining to the conduct of the military into an organizing principle for international engagement in conflict-ridden countries.

Historically, PoC was understood as a legal principle, within the application of international humanitarian law, as promoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross. From the 1990s, PoC has evolved into a guideline for the intervention of humanitarian organizations. Despite a high international profile, the realization of the PoC agenda has been hampered by conceptual confusion, operational difficulties, and insufficient understanding of how normative developments and the self-protection efforts of civilians can best be aligned. Moreover, the ‘humanitarian imperative’ to protect has involved an increasing militarization of PoC, whereby PoC has become identified with increasingly robust UN peacekeeping activities.

In the 2016 Agenda for Humanity, the Secretary General calls for a concerted global effort to prevent the erosion of international humanitarian and human rights law, demand greater compliance with them and uncompromisingly pursue the protection of civilians.

Responding to this call for a recentring of law in the struggle to protect civilians, we argue that PoC should be imagined as a spectrum of possibilities, with an emphasis on subsidiarity and state capacity. When tailoring PoC to state capacity, international and national legal bodies are the means for holding states with the capacity to protect civilians accountable for their security. PoC is then operationalized through state action and civil society efforts to shape and monitor implementation. This requires an expansion of territorial control by the state, especially by a state bound by the rule of law, and not just the extension of control by state armed forces and paramilitary allies acting outside the rule of law.

Taking a bottom-up approach to this process makes visible how grassroots actors strategically use legal protection as part of their self-protection efforts, and how state response is entangled in its own interests. To that end, this brief makes reference to the successful experience of the Kankuamo people in Colombia, and the complex relation between protection measures and actions taken by both the state and Kankuamo authorities to curb violence against civilians.

You can read this policy brief here.

This policy brief is an output from the project Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice, funded by the Norwegian Research Council under the HUMPOL program. The project aims to ascertain the role and impact of contemporary policies and practices of PoC. The project is organized under the auspices of PRIO and the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.

New Developments in Drone Proliferation: How Africa was Deployed to Rescue Drones

Debates on global drone proliferation tend to assume that adoption and adaptation of drones follow a universal logic and that the drone industry is a singular thing, geographically concentrated in the Global North. In this blog post I argue that these assumptions make it difficult to critically assess the growth in drone use across Africa. I suggest that one way to think about African drone proliferation is by considering the way drones and Africa are being construed as solutions to each other’s problems: drones are seen as a game changer for develop­ment and security, while in return Africa inspire new and innovative use of drones. The percep­tion of Africa as being in need of external drone intervention dovetails with the drone industry’s efforts to identify and promote good uses for drones — efforts that are central to increasing the legitimacy of drones in the eyes of a skeptical global public. Here I want to highlight three key issues related to drone proliferation in Africa.

First, that there is an unbroken link from colonial use of airpower in Africa and the legacy of technological imperialism to today’s discussion of unmanned technology and its perceived capacities. The first use of airpower in Africa occurred more than a century ago, during the Italian-Turkish War fought in Libya in 1911–1912. In their conquest of Morocco in 1912– 1914, the French used aircraft for reconnaissance and bombing. British use of airpower to enforce civil control in sub-Saharan Africa began in 1916 in British Somaliland. The use of surveillance drones in Africa initially emerged as a part of this colonial apparatus: According to Darren Oliver, the first known drone prototype developed in Africa, the Champion, was developed by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1977 and delivered to the South African Air Force in 1978. Some of the Champions were supplied to Rhodesia for use in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle (1964– 1979), also known as the Rhodesian Bush War. Unbeknownst to almost everyone today, a fleet of South African and Israeli drones “saw extensive combat duty across the southern African theatre between 1980 and 1987, operating from Mozambique to Angola.”

Second, that drones reshape the use of force on the African continent. A central concern in the global debate on armed drones is that such drones may drive military action and lower the threshold for the use of lethal force: the scope of operations is determined by the number of designated individuals drones can target for elimination. In 2007 the first known drone strike on African soil occurred in Somalia. Today, the numbers of targeted drone killings are continuously expanding: The United States, the United Kingdom (UK), and France have bases for surveillance and combat drones in Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Somalia. African militaries are also embracing surveillance and combat drones. A non-exhaustive inventory finds that more than fifteen African states have purchased drones, and at least six can manufacture their own. This includes armed drones: In 2015, the South African company Denel Dynamics introduced the Snyper, an armed version of its Seeker 400 drone. The market for Israeli military drones continues to grow across Africa. China, meanwhile, has exported five armed drones to Nigeria, to boost that country’s efforts to fight Boko Haram.

The third point worth noting is the manner in which the drone industry construes an image of “Africa” as an appropriate testing ground for development of “good” drones suited to solve the continent’s “problems”. Globally, drones have a bad name: in addition to the controversies surrounding the drone wars, drones are generally perceived as technologies that are subject to a range of risks, from pilot error to mechanical failure, cyber-attacks, and bad weather. The result is very limited access to civil airspace. Thus the drone industry has a significant unmet need to test and improve the technology by increasing flight hours and trial applications. The African continent’s lack of infrastructure — including power lines, airspace control, and commercial flights — is attractive to the drone industry: African airspace has been described as “less cluttered with flights that have slowed the adoption of commercial drones in North America and Europe.”

Africa is also a place where drones can obtain legitimacy as a “good” technology. Peacekeeping missions and wildlife conservation are examples of drone use intended to address specifically “African” problems. By allowing practices with high degrees of legitimacy — like peacekeeping and the African War on Poaching — to be juxtaposed with drone uses that, in other contexts, may be viewed as more controversial, the African context provides opportunities to strengthen the notion of drones as “good” technology.

In 2015, a UN Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping called for drones to be integrated into all UN peacekeeping missions, missions that are increasingly set to enforcing peace with military means. Of the sixteen ongoing UN peacekeeping missions, nine are located in Africa. The first mission to acquire a drone capability was MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nongovernmental organizations operating in and around Goma, for example, have voiced strong concerns that such peacekeeping drones are blurring the line between military and humanitarian action. This concerns the actual uses of the drones as well as community perceptions.

In the intensifying African War on Poaching, drones are currently being used to combat poaching on elephant and rhino in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. According to the Game Rangers’ Association of Africa, the massive market demand for illegal game has meant that rangers are increasingly likely to find themselves in combat situations. Conservationists might argue that drones are merely visual aids for rangers to gain an advantage over the poachers. However, when conservation is reframed as a “war on poaching”, this approach is modelled on the war on terror and relies on military-grade weapons. In 2014, in Kruger National Park, South Africa, one poacher was killed by a ranger who was acting on information provided by a drone. Using drones to monitor animals and to target poachers are qualitatively and morally different activities.

In conclusion, the ‘African drone’ has become a vehicle for the production and distribution of norms, resources, and forms of legitimacy that have implications for drone proliferation, both within and outside Africa. By contributing to further militarization and lowering the threshold for the use of force, drones transform the ways in which security operations, peacekeeping and conservation work are carried out across the continent. At the same time, by affiliating drones strongly with these types of projects, the perceptions of African and Northern audiences change with respect to the respectability and utility of drones. As academics, it is our job to try to keep track of these developments; both in the local context and in a broader pan-African perspective.

This blog was first posted over at Mats Utas blog. The post is based on Kristin Bergtora Sandviks article African Drone Stories, which was an output of the Dynamics of State Failure and Violence Project. Sandvik is the co-editor of “The Good Drone”, released by Ashgate in 2016.

An academic New Year’s resolution for Colombia: understanding continued gendered violence as a threat to positive peace

Over the last decade, Colombia has been host to the world’s largest population of internally displaced people (IDP). In 2016, it is expected that the Colombian government and FARC will reach a peace agreement, marking the formal end of more than 50 years of civil war. It is widely recognized that this peace agreement will not resolve the immediate causes of displacement, but rather generate one kind of settlement in a context of longstanding and complex uses of violence. At present, contradictory tendencies seem to be at play: While periods of 2015 have seen the lowest levels of violence recorded on a national level since 1975, threats against civil society actors are increasing at an alarming rate.

As academics, we should be prepared to contribute to the development of a positive peace that amounts to more than the absence of armed conflict. We must continue to research, analyze and theorize violence against grassroots activists; in particular we must make sense of the type of gendered threats and gendered violence female activists are subjected to. From a socio-legal perspective, I think two challenges are particularly significant here.

First, that our theoretical tools for making sense of a violent post-conflict setting are underdeveloped. Existing theories of uses of law by social movements tend to be based on the legal cultures and institutions of industrialized liberal democracies.

In a recent article in Law and Society Review on IDP organizing in Colombia, Julieta Lemaitre and I argue that in violent contexts, mobilization frames are unstable and constantly shifting, resources tend to vanish, and political opportunities often imply considerable physical danger. In recent years, the legal and political conceptualization of the IDP situation as a humanitarian crisis has given way to a transitional justice frame. Yet, the challenges of violent context persist, with additional violence resulting from the ongoing land restitution process. We suggest that future research must pay attention to how legal mobilization in a social context that will most likely remain violent develops under a post-conflict legal regime, for various groups of women’s grassroots activists, including but not limited to displaced women.

Second, in particular, it will be necessary to do a better job of accounting specifically for the persistence of gendered violence and the ways it interlinks with grassroots women’s organizing. For example, Goldstein and Arias influential idea of “violent pluralism” as a mode of describing the Latin American and Colombian experience with conflict and violence is silent on the gendered realities of this violence.  In the post-conflict setting, we need to get a better understanding of political and legal mobilization in response to gendered violence; gendered violence as an obstacle to such political and legal mobilization; and how political and legal mobilization become the causes of gender-based violence.

Continued gendered violence will be a serious threat to positive peace. Taking the New Year’s resolution seriously involves figuring out what’s new, what’s old and which stories have not yet been told. In particular, it involves a commitment to resist the danger of (English-language) scholarly amnesia that often follows watershed moments like this type of peace agreement. It also includes being cognizant of the existing gaps in knowledge that are not going away with a peace agreement.

Happy Holidays.


Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Killing the ‘Robots-don’t-Rape’ Argument

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Kjersti Lohne

Earlier this spring, we debated a law professor who insisted that lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) could clean up war. The professor posited that a war fought with autonomous weapons would be a war without rape. Taking humans out of the loop would, the argument goes, lead to more humane war. We find this narrative, where technological innovation is equated with human progress based on the assumption that it will end the occurrence of rape in war, highly problematic. We have since reflected on what this ‘progress narrative’ is about and how we as a scholars should approach this type of narrative, particularly as it is gaining traction as part of the wider set of arguments regularly employed by actors promoting the use of lethal autonomous weapons (see report by Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions).

Thus, in thinking critically about the nature of the progress narrative of which the ‘Robots don’t rape’ argument is part, we make three observations:

First, the politics of rape denunciation are now also becoming the politics of lobbyists, vendors and military manufacturers seeking access to new customers and markets. The recognition of wartime rape as a fundamental violation of international law has been a hard fought victory. Moving rape from the realm of silence, shame and mutedness and into the public domain has taken enormous effort. The denunciation of sexual violence as one of the worst features of armed conflict is thus welcome. However, this should not blur our view from recognizing how the struggle against rape has attained moral currency, a moral currency that may be useful when someone is trying to legitimate a particular set of past actions or political choices, or when someone is trying to prepare the ground for a future project.

Second, this instrumentalization of the ‘Very Worst Sex Crimes’ is nothing new: the scourge of online child pornography has for a long time been used to legitimate widespread government censorship and surveillance in cyberspace. What Paul Amar (2013) calls ‘gendered cultural rescue‘ is by now an established form of securitization of gender and sexuality, legitimating intervention for the ‘protection’ of (female) civilians. It should therefore be noted that there is not only commercial interest; there is government interest too.

Third, this type of argument belongs to a broader category of technological utopianism, signifying the belief that emergent military technologies create better wars not only because they are pre-programmed and remotely controlled, but because the technology in question is assumed to always function as intended: The surgical precision argument in drone warfare and its attendant claims for ‘humane warfare’ because drones (allegedly) limit collateral damage, should be familiar by now. Similarly, commentators argue that Cyberwarfare is preferable to conventional war because it is presumed to make war less bloody. Following the same type of transformative logic, autonomous robots are portrayed as the vehicles for perfect legality and perfect soldiering, which in combination will produce ‘perfect combat’. This third argument brings the normative crowd of law and ethics professors into the project.

In sum, the deployment of the robots-don’t-rape argument can be understood as an attempt to build a moral economy; an environment in which social expectations, cultural transactions, and emotional investments collectively create a shared understanding between the participants in an economic exchange. Leveraging the argument that robots don’t rape—and doing so through market-based, governance and ethical discourses—can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to create this type of moral economy out of which robot soldiers are supposed to emerge.

If this is the case, and the progress narrative is indeed one of strategy as indicated here, how may we respond?

In an excellent posting at Duck of Minerva last year, Charlie Carpenter lamented the fact that a recurrent argument at the first Convention of Conventional Weapons (CCW) experts meeting in Geneva in May 2014 was the idea that, unlike human soldiers, autonomous weapons would never commit rape. She noted that this argument was a subset of the more general argument that killer robots would be good for human security, since they are assumed better at keeping to the norms of the laws of war (as argued by Ronald Arkin and others). Carpenter also observed that the 1998 definition of rape in international law, as codified in the Rome Statute for the International Criminal court is a broad one, according to which rape is not reducible to forcible penetration of women committed by men. Rather, rape occurs when

The perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.

Carpenter suggests that this conceptualization of rape is accompanied by an implicit understanding of motivation and rationale: that rapes in war are spontaneous and unplanned and thus a breach of discipline. Contrary to widespread assumptions, sexual violence is not the male soldier’s appropriation of his ‘war dividend’; rather, as the research on sexual violence as a weapon of war has showed us, sexual violence is often strategically used against civilians. If LAWS are programmed to kill, they may also be programmed to do other forms of violence, including rape.

Carpenter’s eloquent rejection of the rape argument on account of factual inaccuracy (wrong definition of rape; killer robots could technically be programmed to carry out rape) along with misleading assumptions about the uses of rape in conflict is one that we should prepare ourselves to repeat. As often as necessary. Not least as the cost of accepting the ‘Robots don’t rape’ argument risk undermining hard-fought gender battles, reducing wartime rape to an issue of uncontrolled/uncontrollable male sexuality and penis penetration of predominantly female victims instead of recognizing it primarily as an act of violence, and one which may or may not be deliberate, intentional, and programmed.