Multilateral Cyber Negotiations and Gender Mainstreaming: A Complicated Relationship

By Liliya Khasanova

The protests in Iran in the name of Mahsa Amini are one of many examples of how the advancement of technology enables us to speak up, spread the word, and learn about human rights violations. Online anonymity and, therefore, reduced accountability for gender-based violence affects the vulnerability of individuals. There is no doubt now that the internet has become the most consequential communication technology of the human rights era.

Despite the technical universalism that technology grants us, there is a strong pushback on conceptual universalism in human rights in cyberspace, including gender issues. In multilateral settings, the efforts of states to regulate malicious state operations have been underpinned by cybersecurity concerns, with little attention paid to human rights protection. The gender dimension, if at all represented, is mainly in the norms of capacity-building and gender parity, avoiding direct referrals to gender equality and women’s rights.

Multilateral Forums under UN Auspices

Until 2021, two main forums had a mandate to discuss norms and rules on cybersecurity: the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) (work completed in May 2021) and the UN Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) (mandate renewed 2021-2025). One of the main achievements of the GGE was an adoption of a consensus that international law applies to cyber operations (2013). However, how it applies is still very much contested. The complexity of cyberspace as a domain raises several contested issues among states on the definition of sovereignty, attribution of cyber-attacks, the applicability of international humanitarian law, due diligence, etc. The differences between the GGE and OEWG process lay in the nature and number of stakeholders included in the discussion: the latter includes all the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) members as well as non-governmental actors, as compared to experts from 25 states working in their personal capacity in the GGE. In a certain sense, continuing the mandate of the OEWG was a step intended to mitigate the risk of functional and geographical fragmentation of international law. In 2022, negotiations also began in the new UN ad hoc committee on cybercrime that is tasked with drafting a new cybercrime convention.

(Anti)gender Discourse in Cybersecurity Negotiations 

After analysing all the reports adopted by GGE and OEWG, documents of the preparatory process, and official commentaries of states, several observations can be made regarding the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and gender discourse in cyber security negotiations.

Firstly, openness and “multistakeholderism”, i.e. bringing multiple stakeholders together to participate in dialogue and implementation of responses, of the OEWG (as opposed to GGE) resulted in more gender-related remarks in preparatory work and, consequently, in the reports. As an example, an introduction to the latest 2021 OEWG report states:

“The OEWG welcomes the high level of participation of women delegates in its sessions and the prominence of gender perspectives in its discussions. The OEWG underscores the importance of narrowing the “gender digital divide” and of promoting the effective and meaningful participation and leadership of women in decision-making processes related to the use of ICTs in the context of international security.”

To be fair, the gender parity of delegates, both within the teams and among delegation leaders, is improving yearly. Around 38% of all the delegates to the last OEWG sessions were women, which is relatively high compared to other forums.

However, when it comes to gender mainstreaming in the sense of assessing and addressing the implications of information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) for girls, boys, men, women, and non-binary people, the multilateral forums lack consensus. For instance, out of four paragraphs that contained gender issues in the initial draft reports, only one (paragraph 56) that touches upon gender-sensitive capacity building could survive the opposition and was included in the final text of the 2021 OEWG report. Two others–the reference to gender-centred implications of malicious use of ICT and the concluding statement on the need to mainstream gender considerations in the implementation of norm–were cut out from the final text.

Despite the outstanding advocacy work by international human rights and women organizations represented at the negotiation forums, the pushback against gender discourse is persistent and strong. Today, in 2022, in a multilateral setting where states are the main decision-makers, there are still official positions that follow the mantra of a traditional, state-centric, and non-inclusive understanding of international peace and security. Russia, which is playing an active role in OEWG deliberations, affirmed in one of its official statements that “references to the problems of sustainable development, human rights and gender equality, which fall under the competence of other UN bodies, look inappropriate and are not directly related to the problem of ensuring international peace and security” [emphasis added]. To be fair, Russia formulated a position that is shared with most of the countries in the Middle East and some Asian, African and Latin American countries.

Cybersecurity multilateral negotiations are not unique in this sense. The issue is rooted in deep opposition to ‘gender ideology –the discourse(s) on gender equality and women’s rights, and especially the discourse(s) on sexual orientation and gender identity. It cannot be seen separately from the policy and governance narratives that became dominant in several countries in the past years: the rollback of women’s rights, gender equality, and perception of gender. For example, in Russia the state-sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ campaign culminated in the 2013 “anti-propaganda law” banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to children and to the general public starting from December 1, 2022.[1] Eventually, the amendments to the Russian constitution in 2020 added a definition of marriage as “a relationship between one man and one woman,” which explicitly outlawed same-sex marriage.[2] Most of the Middle Eastern nations recently outlawed same-sex intimacy directly, punishing it with everything from fines to prison and, in Saudi Arabia, to the death penalty. Thus, this pushback on gender ideology, originating from national discourses, can be seen in rule-making procedures internationally.

The multilateral cyber negotiation scene under UN auspices is complicated nowadays with geopolitical tensions and competing interests and reflects the general crisis penetrating the international legal order. The rise in recent years of civilizational, cultural, and ideological confrontation set within the human rights agenda is reflected not only in official positions and approaches, but also in normative proposals in the OEWG and UNGA on cyber matters.

In such circumstances, the role of civil society and its contribution is critical in using a “humanitarian” agenda to persistently push back against an archaeal understanding of international security. Amidst geopolitical disputes, the deepening cleavages between western countries and Russia and China heavily influence the participation of certain stakeholders in meetings. In July 2022, during the first OEWG meeting, 27 NGOs were blocked from participation by Russia, after which some of the Russian NGOs were blocked by Ukraine in retaliation.[3] Harmonizing and aligning strategies and enhancing cooperation between stakeholders could help overcome the increasing geopolitical pressure that civil society organizations experience nowadays in cyber negotiation forums.

To work against the effects of these and other efforts to repress international attempts at advancing a gender equality agenda, effective gender mainstreaming is possible only when gender research is less fragmented and supported by rigorous data collection practices. Partially, the strong transnational opposition against “gender ideology” comes from the misconception of the notion of “gender (identity).” This leads to a broad delegitimization of scientific knowledge on gender as such. “Gender” becomes a red flag even where it is not necessarily a contested concept. Acknowledging and defining this disagreement might help avoid the broad hostility toward everything related to gender. Highlighting and respecting cultural and religious traditions and perceptions while conducting detailed and concise research on gender and cyber can help focus on the “humane” component rather than ideological confrontation.

The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Women In International Security or its affiliates


[1] Russian Federation, Federal Law No. 135-FZ of 2013, on Amendments to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development;” Russian Federation, Federal Law No. 478-FZ of 05.12. 2022. on Amendments to the Federal Law on “Information, information technologies and security of information” and other legislative acts of Russian Federation.”

[2] Constitution of the Russian Federation as amended and approved by the All-Russian vote on July 1, 2020 [working translation]

[3] Hurel, Louise Marie, “The Rocky Road to Cyber Norms at the United Nations”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 6, 2022,