Recaps of the UN CCW meetings March 25-29, 2019

From March 25-29, 2019 in Geneva, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems met at the United Nations (UN). The following written reports by Reaching Critical Will recount highlights from each day. Statements from individual countries about their stances on lethal autonomous weapons, delivered at the meetings this week, can be found here.


Opening remarks

CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 1: Time to get serious before it’s too late

It’s increasingly clear that killer robots must be regulated via a new treaty. Calls to ban killer robots are multiplying rapidly, from the United Nations Secretary-General to the European Parliament. Media interest is increasing, not diminishing. A new Ipsos poll of 26 countries shows that public opposition to fully autonomous weapons has grown over the past two years from 56 percent to 61 percent.

Representatives from more than 80 states have participated in the six Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems since 2014. As this seventh meeting begins, those states should feel good about the efforts they have made to explore some of the concerns raised by allowing machines to select and attack targets without further human intervention.

The strong interest that countries are showing in these diplomatic talks indicates their desire to be seen to be doing “something” about this concern. Those CCW meetings have shown that there is now widespread agreement on the need to retain some form of human control over future weapons systems and the use of force. The time is now ripe to move to negotiations.

Day 1 & 2 

CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 2: It’s time to exercise human control over the CCW

During the first two days of this current round of UN talks on fully autonomous weapon systems, or killer robots, governments discussed potential military applications of autonomous technologies; characterisations of autonomous weapon systems; potential challenges of these systems for international law; and the “human element” in the use of force.

The majority of states support the development of new international law that contains prohibitions and regulations of autonomous weapon systems. Of these, 28 governments support a complete ban on the development, possession, and use of these weapons. Some others seek a legal agreement that ensures meaningful human control over critical functions in such systems. A few others, mostly European states, expressed their interest in other mechanisms, such as a political declaration proposed by France and Germany. They envision a declaration to be a good vehicle to outline principles for the development and use of autonomous weapon systems, such as the necessity of human control in the use of force and the importance of human accountability. Some countries have also suggested the development of a code of conduct on the development and use of autonomous weapon systems and/or creating a compendium of “good practices”.

Day 3 

CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 3: Will the “insignificant states” please stand up

On Wednesday morning, as delegates participating in the current round of UN talks on autonomous weapons discussed “possible options” for moving forward on this issue, a mounting swell of voices calling for a ban on these weapons could be heard loud and clear. Numerous diplomats and activists from around the world advocated for work to begin now on developing a treaty to prohibit or regulate autonomous weapon systems in order to ensure the retention of meaningful human control over the use of force, on ethical, legal, political, and technical grounds. Clearly anxious about this, those against a ban or other legally-binding solutions attempted to rally the opposition. Quoting from the preamble of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), Finland stressed the importance of the “militarily significant states” participating in discussions, current and future, on autonomous weapons. By the afternoon, those promoting non-binding declarations, or no action at all, held the floor.

European countries such as Austria and to some extent Belgium, Ireland, and Switzerland, together with Latin American governments including Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Peru, as well as others such as Algeria, Pakistan,  South Africa, and the Non-Aligned Movement have spent the last few days reiterating their moral, ethical, political, legal, technical, and operational concerns with increasing autonomy in weapon systems. Their concerns about autonomous weapons demonstrate that they do not see any benefits from having sensors and software programmed to find, fix, and fire upon targets. They do not see any benefit from granting machines the ability to kill and destroy, or from distancing humans ever further from the act of committing violence against other humans.

“How much suffering could have been spared if the international diplomatic community had addressed the problems of landmines and cluster bombs sooner than we did?”, asked the delegation of Peru on Wednesday. Right now, we have the chance to prevent human suffering from the further automation of violence, and we must seize this moment. “Diplomacy should not be overtaken by realities on the ground,” cautioned the Austrian ambassador. “Doing nothing while these novel and unique weapons are gaining increasingly levels of autonomy is not an option,” said Pakistan.

Day 4 & 5

CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 4: Preventing a march toward dystopia

Another round of UN talks on autonomous weapon systems ended on Friday without significant movement in any particular direction. Six years into this political process, states are continuing to tread water while millions of dollars are being invested into automated killing machines.

The focus of the last two days has been summaries of discussion produced by the Chair. Delegates gave their reactions and corrections to the texts, upon which the Chair intends to hold further consultations over the coming months. The summaries are not the basis for a legally binding treaty, a political declaration, a code of conduct, or any other measure to prevent, constrain, or regulate the development of autonomous weapons. They are just summaries of conversations that indicate areas of convergence and divergence, or how relevant various characteristics of control and weaponry are for this issue. The summaries do provide an indication of where states stand on certain issues, but in that regard, they are perhaps as alarming as they are helpful.

In particular, the informal discussions over these summaries clearly showed once again that a handful of states are not only intent on developing and deploying killer robots, but that they are also actively questioning some of the key legal and ethical frameworks humankind has developed over centuries to constrain violence. One state rejects public conscience as a constraint on weapons technology. Another does not see the relevance of human rights in the context of autonomous weapons. A handful of governments apparently are not very concerned whether or not human beings have control over weapons.

A lot of governments, fortunately, are concerned. Regardless of what political or legal measures they support, the majority of delegations participating in these talks have expressed the belief that human begins must retain meaningful human control over weapon systems—that humans must be operationally in control of and legally accountable for decisions to use force.

Read the full list of CCW reports here.