CCW Report, Vol. 4, No. 5

Editorial: To progress or disrupt
16 December 2016

Ray Acheson

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As states negotiated language for the final declaration and decisions of the conference on Thursday, one civil society observer reminded delegates on Twitter that they are called upon by the CCW to “continue the codification and progressive development of the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict.” As we noted in Tuesday’s editorial, the CCW was designed to be evolutionary, in order to adapt to changing technologies and methodologies in warfare. The Fifth Review Conference has struggled to live up to this mandate, arguing over work portfolios on incendiary weapons, mines other than antipersonnel mines, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Instead of facilitating the progressive development of rules related to armed conflict, some CCW states parties seem instead to be operating out of the pages of the 1944 field manual on “Simple Sabotage” published by the Central Intelligence Agency. In the section on “general interference with organizations and production,” the manual suggests operatives “make speeches,” encouraging them to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length.” It also urges them to “refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’.” It recommends bringing up irrelevant issues as much as possible; haggling over precise wording; referring back to matters decided upon at previous meetings and attempting to reopen those decisions; and advocating “caution” and “reasonableness” and the avoidance of haste.

States not wishing to develop rules of international law related to armed conflict have effectively employed these tactics to disrupt, delay, and defer progressive action in the CCW this week, as they have in other forums.

It is interesting, perhaps, to examine this next to the development of the means and methods of warfare, which has steadily evolved. If we look at the history of weapons development, we see a trajectory leading us towards increasing automation and remoteness of armed conflict, an increasing dislocation of the weapon operator from the weapon. From hand-to-hand combat to guns to tanks to bombers to drones and now potentially to fully autonomous weapons, the path is clear. Technological evolution in weaponry is driving us ever closer to fully mechanised violence, outside of the hands and minds of human beings.

At the same time, however, some have argued that technological evolution has driven a broader social and cultural evolution, which “has carried us from hunter-gatherer bands to the brink of a cohesive global community.” As professor Toby Walsh said during his remarks at the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’ side event on Thursday, it is up to us choose if we use technology for good or for bad.

If we suppose (or want) the purpose or direction of technological evolution to be about facilitating a global community, then where does the creation of autonomous weapons fit in? Where does continued advancement in weapons technology and stalling in the development of rules or restrictions on their development or use drive us? Is the automation of weaponry compatible with the creation and sustenance of a true global community, in which people should surely be putting more resources into figuring out how to live together instead of kill each other?

The level and nature of violence we are already seeing around the globe—destruction of cities, massacres of civilians, seemingly limitless expansion of battlefields, etc.—would seem to be incompatible with a social and cultural evolution towards a global community. Will adding to the mix machines tasked with making kill decisions help or hinder this already fraught state of affairs?

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