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CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 4

Preventing a march toward dystopia
1 April 2019


Ray Acheson

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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.

But because the CCW operates by consensus-as-unanimity, the majority concerns are subsumed by the minority quest for military dominance or the unconstrained capacity for violence. At this round of talks, for example, Australia, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States spoke against any move to create a new treaty on autonomous weapons. These states are investing significant funds and effort into developing weapon systems with decreasing human control over the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets.

To make matter worse, many of those who support only partial, non-binding measures—such as political declarations or codes of conduct or national level weapon review processes—just don’t seem that bothered by the lack of progress. It actually seems like a number of states are resigned to the idea that these weapons will be developed, and that they will need to go along with it. They seem to be using the classic arms proliferation logic—that is, if country X gets these weapons then we must have them, too, because country X will be unscrupulous in how they use them and we must have equal capacity to be unscrupulous in defence.

This type of logic is why we have over 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world right now. It is why more bullets are produced every year than there are people on the planet. It is why bombs are dropped on homes and hospitals. “We need to exercise our fullest capacity for violence because that is what others are doing.” Or, “We might as well produce or sell these weapons even if we know they will be used to slaughter civilians because if we don’t do it, someone else will.” This is the logic of the “militarily significant states”. This is the logic of militarised masculinities, where might makes right and power is demonstrated and exercised through the capacity and willingness to use force.

This is what international law—including disarmament and arms control law, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law—is meant to constrain. There are alternative options for international relations. There are choices other than deploying weapons of mass destruction, bombing towns and cities, and increasing capacity for remote and autonomous uses of force. Agreeing collectively to not go down this path is the best bet we have as a human species to survive, and to turn our economic and human resources to productive endeavours such as dealing with climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and inequality.

The vision of a different future is why the United Nations was founded in 1945, and it is why activists continue to try to engage with governments in this forum. We want it to live up to its promise of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. In those moments in the aftermath of World War II, we may not have understood that one day we would be looking at the possibility of wars waged with machines. But in this moment, that dark and dystopian future is foreseeable. We have the chance to build a different future. But not for long.

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