July 20, 2021

UCalgary Political Science interviews our colleague Dr. Maureen Hiebert

Talking about a career that began with the shock of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, to military technologies affecting democratic civil-military relations, to “future war” and the ethics of “super soldiers”!
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Dr. Maureen Hiebert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science as well as a Fellow and Graduate Program Director at the Centre for Strategic, Security, and Military Studies at the University of Calgary.


Your work is on two distinct areas: the processes and causes of atrocity crimes as well as the intersection of law, civil military relations and new technology in armed conflict. How did you become interested in these areas? 

After traveling for several weeks in Europe with little access to news, my now husband and I bought a newspaper in Paris in early June 1994. The headline said that over 600,000 people and counting had been killed in an ongoing genocide in a country called Rwanda. I just couldn’t believe what I was reading! As a soon-to-be PhD student, I wanted to know why in the world elite actors would do such a thing; why would they deliberately choose to destroy particular groups of human beings simply because of who they are. All these years later, I’m still picking away at that question. That genocides keep happening and is a choice made by the perpetrators high and low, still blows my mind. 

As for the second subject, this is something we cover in my combined undergraduate/graduate course POLI 543/643 Law and Armed Conflict. While the literature we cover in the course deals with the law and ethics of military systems with autonomy, it seems to me that the question of how such technologies might affect democratic civil-military relations has been largely neglected. I think democracies need to decide now whether and how they will use these proposed systems since there are real concerns about whether the functionality of fully autonomous systems can be understood by humans. This not only applies to the soldiers and commanders who would use autonomous platforms, but civilian politicians and civil servants who will be charged with exercising civilian control over the military by making defence policy, procuring autonomous systems, and along with the military assigning legal responsibility if such systems violate the laws of war.  

Heibert Headshot

Can you tell us about the research projects you have been working on? 

Right now I’m working on three different projects. The first is a pandemic-delayed workshop and co-edited book with department colleagues Josh Goldstein and Gavin Cameron funded through a SSHRC Connection grant on what we call the “Oddities of Violence. These are cases of genocide and terrorism that are hard to explain using existing analytical approaches. This is a really exciting project in which we will bring an international cast of empirical scholars from a variety of social science disciplines into conversation with philosophers of violence. Our workshop will be in June 2022. 

My second project is about the role of law in the perpetration of the crime of genocide. Effectively a work of comparative law and politics, I try to explain why the law plays a role in the perpetration of some, but not all, mass violence genocides committed by authoritarian regimes and why the extermination phase is always extralegal. I also explore why the law has played a central role in genocides committed in settler colonial societies in ways that are entirely consistent with democratic rule of law. 

The final project is new area of research for me and focuses on so-called “future war.” I want to explore the ways military AI and lethal autonomous weapons may challenge democratic civil-military relations. I’m particularly interested in whether and how these new military technologies could undermine civilian control of the military given the possible unintelligibility of these systems to civilian politicians and bureaucrats. This unintelligibility problem could also destabilize the application of domestic and international law to the military, thus potentially weakening a key regulating mechanism of civilian control over the military and military autonomy. 

What’s the next big thing you are planning to work on? 

Continuing on the future war theme, Josh Goldstein and I are planning a co-authored volume on the historical and future evolution of enhanced “super soldiers.” Going back to the ancient western world we intend to explore how soldiers have been conceptualized as war fighters and members of the political community, the ways enhancement has occurred in the past that set these individuals apart from society, and whether the perhaps permanent chemical or cybernetic enhancement of soldiers in the future may for the first time create a new kind of human being. This prospect raises fundamental questions about soldiers’ control over their own bodies (i.e., their personal autonomy), their ability to be reintegrated into society if enhancements cannot be reversed, and thus ultimately the status of their membership in the political community they have sworn to protect. 

Finally, you’ve supervised a lot of graduate students and have won a UCalgary Great Supervisor Award. Tell us a bit about your supervisory approach. 

Supervision in one of my favourite things about being an academic! My approach is to try to meet my supervisees where they’re at. I try not to make assumptions about what will work with a particular student and what won’t and instead spend a fair bit of time trying to get the know each student so they can tell me what works best for them. I also strongly encourage students to choose their own subject area, analytical/theoretical approach, and research design. I want them to explore what truly interests, or more accurate, puzzles them rather than pushing them toward my own areas of interest. The central question I keep asking is “what do you want to know?” For me, supervision is not about creating versions of myself. I’ve also benefited enormously from some excellent seminars offered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies on various aspects of supervision as well as insights from colleagues in Political Science and the Centre for Military, Security, & Strategic Studies

Thanks to Dr. Maureen Hiebert for sharing with us!

Follow Dr. Maureen Hiebert on Twitter at @_mhiebert 

To learn more, visit Dr. Hiebert’s profile.