CCW Report, Vol. 5, No. 6

These are the droids we're looking for

Ray Acheson
20 November 2017

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It’s been four years since we first began to discuss the challenges associated with the development of autonomous weapon systems (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 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. During the past few years, and certainly many times again in the past week, we have been told that “fully” autonomous weapons do not exist and never will exist or be deployed. We are told that no country would use weapons over which it does not have control, and that we must not “interfere” with the development of autonomous weapon systems that have some sort of “appropriate level of human involvement” because they may bring us great benefits in terms of “protection of civilians” and “avoiding friendly fire”.

These arguments, not surprisingly, come from counties that already have R&D programmes for AWS. And, also not surprisingly, it is mostly countries that possess nuclear weapons that are making these arguments most loudly. (Note: this refers in particular to France, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States. Pakistan, in contrast, supports a prohibition.)

It is really rather difficult to listen to nuclear-armed states assure us that we don’t need to worry about AWS and should not taken any action against their development, because those arguments sound so familiar it is like a lightning bolt to anyone who has listened to them talk about nuclear weapons.

They say:

  • We (meaning, the rest of the international community) don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to AWS because they don’t yet exist (so we can’t possibly regulate or prohibit them);
  • We don’t need to worry about “fully” AWS ever existing or being deployed, they won’t let that happen (the, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the argument); and
  • AWS will bring us humanitarian and military benefits.

Replace with nuclear weapons:

  • We (meaning, the rest of the international community) don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to nuclear weapons because we don’t have them (so we can’t possibly regulate or prohibit them);
  • We don’t need to worry about nuclear weapons ever being used, they are for deterrence, silly!; and
  • Nuclear weapons bring us humanitarian and military benefits because see b.

It’s hard to listen to the nuclear-armed states tell us not to worry, that we don’t understand, and that we have nothing to fear from their development of new weapon systems. It’s hard to listen such assurances while they continue to invest billions of dollars into technologies of massive nuclear violence; while they sell weapons for a profit to countries around the world, leading to a slaughter of civilians and incredible rates of displacement and destruction of towns and cities; while they themselves engage in bombings of towns and cities; and perhaps most importantly, while they kill civilians with impunity with semi-autonomous weapons like drones.

We are also told that the emerging technologies associated with such weapon systems are being driven and developed by civilian industry, not the military. This was even asserted in two drafts of the final report of this meeting, until states opposed to such conjecture finally succeeded in having it removed. We must not underestimate the role of the military-industrial complex in the development of weapon technologies—the attempt to conceal this in a UN document speaks volumes about the insidious nature of the complex and its relationship to certain governments.

But all is not lost. Despite the attempts to leech the final report of ambition let alone policy direction, momentum is growing for a legally binding response to the challenges posed by 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 near 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.

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