Women making international law: Towards feminist diplomacy

Date & time

1–2pm Thursday 21 September 2017


Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University


A/Prof Susan Harris-Rimmer, Griffith University


For interstate visitors, we offer suggestions for accommodation near ANU.


Nicole Harman
College seminar
Susan Harris-Rimmer

Feminist international law scholarship has always insisted on showing the human faces of the state, why constructions of gender matter to the state, and which humans are excluded or silenced by gendered constructions of the state. And so the feminist question posed here is, who is entitled to make international law? This collection contains sustained analysis of women as judges in international courts, women as ‘publicists’ in the academy, and women advocates and political leaders as drivers of treaty reform. But what of the women behind the ‘state’, creating custom, driving norms as diplomats?

The sources of international law are learnt by heart by all international lawyers, based on Article 38(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. These sources include treaties, customary international law derived from the practice of States; general principles of law recognized by civilised nations; and, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of international law: judicial decisions and the writings of ‘the most highly qualified publicists’.

These sources of international law still require feminist interrogation.  Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin criticise this hierarchy of sources of law on the grounds that it excluded many newer forms of law making from non-official channels, and have examined further the gender exclusions of treaties and customary law. Regarding treaties, Boyle and Chinkin have urged an examination of the participants involved in preparatory conferences and treaty negotiations.  There has been some attention to issues of women’s representation and gender language in environmental treaties, which as a rule have had more systematic civil society participation, and a thorough study of gender and peace agreements. Certain treaties, like the Rome Statute or the Arms Trade Treaty have received attention.  But there is yet to be a major study of gender and treaty-making across the board, internal and external actors.  In this piece, I look at the diplomatic actors within states ‘making’ law but take a deeper look at who is embodying the state in these processes.

One of the most important changes to modern diplomacy is the increased participation of women, both as foreign policy elites and in wider transnational networks. If this most fundamental aspect of diplomacy is human interactions, then the new representation of women and LGBTI+ persons in the practice of diplomacy since the mid-­‐twentieth century should have made a profound impact on the field of diplomacy studies. Moreover, changes in gender relations in society has affected some of the content and focus of foreign policy, along with the advent of female foreign ministers.  This advent could be even more significant as the internet or the rise of NGOs for the practice of diplomacy. In fact, energy since WWII has focused on inclusion of some limited diversity in diplomatic personnel.  This is not to downplay the achievements of the pioneers in diplomacy, as their efforts to serve have often been extraordinary. I argue the ‘business model’ of diplomacy has been resistant to transformation on gender equality grounds thus far, and the ideal diplomat is still gendered heterosexual upper-class rational and masculine.

This article considers gender dimensions in theories of diplomacy; gender dimensions in diplomatic practices; the changing role of the diplomatic spouse; and sex, sexuality and diplomatic cultures. .I argue that the diplomatic spouse model with women in ancillary, decorative and undervalued roles has morphed into junior diplomats, or celebrity goodwill ambassadors.  More data is needed on specific areas of diplomatic practice (peace negotiations, trade talks, summitry) to see how the participation of women and LGBTI+ persons is shifting the practice and content of diplomacy. However, the creation of thematic ambassadors focused on gender equality in the US, Australia, the Seychelles, Norway, Sweden and Finland is an interesting phenomenon that shows transformative potential. 


  • A/Prof Susan Harris-Rimmer »

    Susan Harris Rimmer (BA[Hons]/LLB[Hons] UQ, University Medal, SJD ANU) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow appointed as Associate Professor to Griffith University Law School in July 2015. She remains an Adjunct Reader at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University.  She is also a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre in the Crawford School.  Sue was appointed an Associate Fellow, International Economics at UK think-tank Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in December 2015. She was a Visiting Fellow at the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University and the Graduate Institute, Geneva in 2016.

    Susan is an expert in women's rights and international law, and has a track record in influencing government to adopt progressive policy ideas, including the creation of the position of the Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, support for the W20 in Turkey, and the C20 in Australia (civil society grouping giving policy advice to the G20).  She was part of the Think20 process for Australia's host year of the Group of 20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane 2014, Turkey 2015 and China 2016 and is Australia’s representative to the W20 to Turkey, China and Germany, with Anne Fulwood.  

    In 2014 she was named one of the Westpac and Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence in the Global category. In 2016, she was named a finalist in the ‘Agenda Setter’ category in the 2016 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.

    She has been a board member of UN Women National Committee Australia and has previously been president of the voluntary non-governmental organisation Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. She served two terms on the national board of the Refugee Council of Australia and as an Ambassador for the Australian Refugee Trust.  She is a policy adviser to the digital activism site for gender equality in Australia Fair Agenda. She is a National Board member of the International Women’s Development Agency.  

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