Recaps of the UN CCW meetings Nov 13 – 17


Nov. 13-17, 2017 in Geneva, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems opened at the United Nations (UN) Palais des Nations. Though discussions have occurred for several years, this was the first official UN meeting on autonomous weapons. The following Twitter compilations, YouTube videos, and written reports by Reaching Critical Will recount highlights from each day.

An opening statement from Mary Wareham, coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots: CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 1: The urgent need to retain human control of weapon systems.

Day 1 


Video recap:

CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 2: Confronting reality: we can build autonomous weapons but we can’t make them smart

On the first day of the group of governmental experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), government delegations and expert panelists outlined many of the layered and complex challenges posed by autonomous weapons. From the panel on technological dimensions of LAWS in the afternoon, the warnings are clear: while we are on the cusp of being able to engineer autonomous weapons, we are not able to code such weapons with the necessary human judgments, norms, and laws to adequately control their behaviour or ensure compliance with international humanitarian or human rights law. The nuance and abstraction of human relations cannot be incorporated with systems that exist now or for the foreseeable future, but we can build “stupid” autonomous weapon systems now.

Despite the clear warnings from the technology panel, and from the letters written by scientists and AI experts over the past few years, there are still clear divisions between those states that want to prohibit the development of the weapons now and those that want to “wait and see” what happens with the technology. Yet the majority of voices throughout the first day of this GGE expressed caution and concern with the potential ramifications of further automating our means and methods of warfare.

Day 2 


Video recap:

CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 3: Losing control: the challenge of autonomous weapons for laws, ethics, and humanity

During Tuesday’s session of the group of governmental experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), participants engaged in discussions on military effects and the legal and ethical dimensions of autonomous weapons. Whilst the experts speaking on the military effects panel were generally more enthusiastic about the potential benefits and utility of LAWS than their counterparts on the legal/ethics panel, or the technology panel the day before, common themes did emerge amongst all these discussions. One theme centred on the use of terminology, particularly around the terms autonomy or autonomous, with a variety of suggestions about what is the most appropriate way to delineate the systems under consideration at this meeting.

Apart from these definitional or terminological issues, perhaps the most crucial issue under debate is the degree to which autonomous systems operating outside of “meaningful human control” can comply with international humanitarian law (IHL), and, related to this, what ethical principles could possibly be programmed into an autonomous system that would help facilitate and interpret such compliance.

 Day 3


Video recap:

CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 4: Do killer robots dream of eating sheep?

Wednesday’s meeting on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) continued the general exchange of views from Monday morning, and then moved to an interactive discussion on the Chair’s food-for-thought paper. Both sessions provided further insights into state positions on key issues, and the afternoon’s interactive format helpfully allowed delegations to respond to each other’s proposals. Whilst divisions over critical issues are far from resolved, a few positive themes emerged. For example, most states want to see the GGE continue its work next year, with a mandate to achieve concrete outcomes. Additionally, the majority of states see a legally binding instrument as the best option for addressing the challenges posed by AWS, and at least 20 of these want this to be a prohibition on AW.

 Day 4


Video recap:

CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 5: In pursuit of the unizonk

Day four of the group of governmental experts (GGE) was more forward looking than previous discussions this week, as states expanded upon what they hope to do in relation to autonomous weapons (AWS) in the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) context next year. The Chair also tabled the first draft of the GGE report, which states offered preliminary reactions to during the afternoon session. In short, it looks like the current mandate for this GGE will be rolled over to 2018, setting us up for another two weeks of work next year (as long as states fulfill their financial obligations).

The vast majority of CCW high contracting parties participating in this meeting do want concrete action. The majority of those want a legally binding instrument, while others prefer—at least for now—a political declaration or other voluntary arrangements. However, China, Japan, Latvia, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States made it clear that they do not want to consider tangible outcomes at this time.

Day 5


CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 6: These are the droids we’re looking for

Going into this group of governmental experts, it already seemed like it was time for our multi-stakeholder community to advance to the next level of its work—a political or legal response to prohibit or at least begin to put limits on the development and use of such weapons. But the consensus-based nature of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in which these talks have been held means that even though the vast majority of states are ready and willing to take some kind of action now, they cannot because a minority opposes it. This is a frustrating position to be in, especially as we watch the research and development (R&D) of these weapons take firm hold in certain countries.