Autonomous Weapons Systems: Perpetuating the Gender Bias in Armed Conflict?

“To fight has always been the man’s habit, not the woman’s. Law and practice have developed that difference, whether innate or accidental”

– Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas,1938.

International law has developed on the basis of patriarchal structures. Indeed, this can be clearly seen within International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which can be understood as a “masculine form of domination”. IHL is used to regulate armed conflicts which have, for centuries, been fought by men. As a result, a gender bias has developed, in which masculinity is equated with the status of a warrior and femininity with innocence. This bias is specifically contained within the principle of distinction in IHL, under the Geneva Conventions Protocol I, Article 48. This states that parties to the armed conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians, and only attack the former.

The question is whether the future use of Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS) will serve to perpetuate this bias or whether they will disrupt the patriarchal military structure. AWS are defined as any weapon system with autonomy in its critical functions. These weapons are yet to be developed, but pre-cursors are seen in weapons such as South Korea’s semi-autonomous SGR-A1. The use of AWS has the potential to change gender dynamics upon the battlefield.

Gender as a social construct and the binary of sex difference embedded within gender identity has been translated into many areas of international law and IHL is not exempt from this critique. It is a regime that predominantly prioritises men, relegating women to the status of victims and child-bearers. This discrimination and bias can be seen especially in the principle of distinction.

Masculinity in war is associated with a natural ‘protector’ dynamic; the combatants embodying the image of chivalric, just warriors as a direct result of patriarchal norms within society. Women are regularly placed in the same group as children when their experiences within war is considered. In turn, this analogises women with the perceived vulnerability and innocence that children bear in society. It is therefore expected from men’s gendered roles that their duty is to fight in wars to protect women and children. This hegemonic masculinity sustains the patriarchal military structure.

The reality is that many women do act as combatants in armed conflicts, defying the gendered narratives of war. However, their role as combatants is often over-looked by many participants. The generalisation of women as civilians also serves to ignore their unique experiences of war as victims of gender-based violence, perpetrated in armed conflict to ensure maintenance of the subordination of women.

The use of AWS may present an opportunity to rid the gender bias embedded within the principle of distinction; the phrase “robots do not rape” is one that has been used in arguments that propose the use of AWS. Their use presents an opportunity to eliminate gender-based violence as a way of upholding the patriarchal military structure. Rather than viewing women as innocent subordinates, AWS warfare could result in the emancipation of the traditional gender roles prescribed to men and women during wartime. The protector and protected dyad would cease to continue, as all genders would be protected during war by AWS.

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