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Group of governmental experts on autonomous weapons concludes its work for 2017 with momentum building for a new treaty

Last week, the first formal group of governmental experts (GGE) met in Geneva to deliberate on how to deal with autonomous weapon systems (AWS).

It’s been four years since we first began to discuss the challenges associated with the development of AWS at the United Nations. In that time, states, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, industry, academics, and others have deliberated about the legal, ethical, political, security, and military implications of such weapons. Going into this GGE, 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.

However, momentum for a legally binding appropriate to these weapons is growing, with the majority of states supporting new international law regulating or prohibiting AWS. With the Non-Aligned Movement’s announcement at this meeting that it supports an international treaty to stipulating prohibitions and regulations on AWS, and three more countries joining the list of supporters for a prohibition, we do seem to be on the right track.

Many European states indicated support for France and Germany’s proposal for a political declaration and other voluntary measures on AWS. Some supporters of a ban indicated they could get behind a declaration as an interim step, as long as it is clearly oriented towards legally binding measures in the nv ear term. In the meantime, the vast majority of states participating in these discussions accepted that some form of human control must be maintained over weapon systems.

This week, at the CCW annual meeting on 24 November, high contracting parties to the Convention will take a final decision on the CCW’s future work on this issue. The final draft report issued from the group of governmental experts last Friday recommends ten days in 2018, using the same mandate as this year’s meeting.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots recommends the 2018 GGE meetings be action-oriented and focus on discussions between states rather than expert level panels. States should focus on considering characteristics or elements of a working definition on AWS. It is time for experts from governments to make explicit where they draw the line in increasing autonomy in weapon systems and determine how to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems. The Campaign strongly suggests that states hold at least two separate GGE meetings in 2018, including one during the first quarter or half of the year. The GGE should pave the way to international negotiations on a legally binding instrument. States should agree to a formal negotiating mandate at the end of 2018, and conclude a new protocol by the end of 2019—a protocol that bans the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

It is not often that, as a community of international disarmament and arms control practitioners, we have the opportunity to prevent future horrors. With autonomous weapons, we have that chance. We know what it is like to go up against the vested powers of the military-industrial complex and militarily and economically powerful governments: we just did it by banning nuclear weapons. Instead of living under the weight of horrific tools of violence and inhumanity for decades as we’ve been forced to in the nuclear sphere, it would be prudent, to say the least, to take the challenge of autonomous weapons on now, before any humans have to suffer their use.

Further coverage and analysis of the GGE is available in the CCW Report, which was published daily by Reaching Critical Will. Also see statements and documents on the RCW website.