CCW Report, Vol. 6, No. 9

New law needed now
30 August 2018

Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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The message is clear: The vast majority of countries want to negotiate a legally binding instrument on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) next year. The states of the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Group (as groups and many individually), plus Austria, Brazil, and Mexico all staked out their position firmly during Wednesday’s debate, calling for the next meetings on this subject to contain a negotiating mandate.

But, as it goes in UN disarmament forums that operate by consensus, an overwhelming majority doesn’t mean much. The United States and Russia have said they will reject a mandate to negotiate a legally binding instrument on AWS. Actually, they’ve said they will reject a mandate to do pretty much anything. They’re not just opposed to new law, they’re also opposed to the development of a political declaration or a code of conduct, which have been suggested by France and Germany and supported by a smattering of other mostly European states who feel negotiations on anything legally binding is “premature”.

Ah, where have we heard that before? The governments proposing negotiations, and the campaigners that have been calling for a ban for the past five years, are all too familiar with the word premature. Banning landmines? Cluster munitions? That was definitely premature. Nuclear weapons? Absolutely—even after more than 70 years of living under the threat of total annihilation and the all too real contamination brought about by nuclear tests, uranium mining, weapon production, and radioactive waste.

Without fail, those playing the premature card have been those who manufacture, use, sell, and profit—in terms of money and/or power—from the weapons that cause devastating humanitarian harm across the globe. In the case of AWS, the strongest opponents to negotiations of a legally binding instrument are those who have ongoing research and development in the field. The US delegation in particular has been increasingly forceful in its defence of AWS throughout this UN process, essentially arguing that these weapons will be magical machines that will much better than human soldiers.

Historically, being told that disarmament or arms control treaties are premature has not stopped those who seek to curb methods and means of violence. It won’t stop us now. But what is particularly incredible about the “it’s premature” argument in this case is that the whole point of negotiating new law now is to prevent these weapons from being developed. So the argument of those opposing negotiations is essentially that we have to wait until these weapons have been developed and deployed. We need to wait for the bodies on the battlefield before we can really understand what limits we might want to put on the autonomous functions of machines designed to kill.

Those opposing new law argue that more discussions are needed. We don’t know what an autonomous weapon is, they argue. We don’t know yet where we might need human control and where autonomy in weapons might actually be helpful. Helpful? Helpful for killing? Helpful for occupying forces to commit genocide more efficiently? Helpful for police to brutalise Black populations? Helpful for whom, and to do what?

These are the key questions for the United States and Russia, but also for those who prefer a political declaration rather than a legally binding treaty. Politically binding agreements and codes of conduct can be useful in some circumstances. The Safe Schools Declaration, through which so far 80 governments have committed to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities “from the worst effects of war,” works to help reduce attacks against schools and to facilitate the continuation of education during conflict. But they aren’t sufficient when it comes to dealing with specific weapon systems. Agreements on specific weapons—biological, chemical, nuclear, as well as cluster bombs and landmines—are constituted through legally binding treaties. This has proven to be the best way to stigmatise the weapons socially and politically, which helps facilitate elimination and non-proliferation. It is also necessary to ensure that disarmament and decontamination are effectively mandated and monitored, and that related industries are involved to ensure against misuse of relevant materials and technologies. All of this will be essential in the case of AWS.

The argument from those supporting a political declaration—which besides France and Germany seems to include Australia, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Switzerland—is that we still don’t have everything worked out in regards to definitions of AWS, of critical functions, or of human control. They see the political declaration as providing a space to reiterate common ground and perhaps to think through contentious areas further. The problem with this approach is that if we don’t have enough agreement for a treaty, we also don’t have enough for a declaration—because at the end of the day, in a consensus-based forum the United States and Russia will reject even something “politically binding” if they don’t agree with it. We have seen this time and again. It’s unclear what those supporting a political declaration think they will achieve with a declaration that would not be stronger, clearer, and more effective through a legally binding instrument. It’s especially confusing because the concept of a declaration or a code of conduct doesn’t have that much support. Besides those indicated above, the United Kingdom has said it is “open to further discussing a possible political declaration”. Israel and Japan don’t seem too interested, saying they would prefer to just keep a discussion mandate going. This is also what the United States and Russia have indicated they would support. These two countries argue that the only acceptable answer to the risks and challenges of autonomous weapons is “apply and comply”: agree that existing international law applies to AWS, and comply with those existing rules. Yet as noted by Ayman Sorour of the non-governmental organisation Protection, recent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere have demonstrated clear violations of international humanitarian and human rights law including by those states saying here that “existing law is sufficient”. What then, he asked, is to be expected from their “application” of these principles to AWS?

And so, among these three options—legally binding instrument (majority support), political declaration and/or code of conduct (some support), and just continuing discussions while a handful of states get on with developing AWS (a handful of support)—guess which wins? If you guessed the option supported by the least number of states, you get a gold star. The Chair circulated his draft conclusions and recommendations of the GGE on Wednesday evening, in which it is indicated that the Group recommends its mandate be renewed for ten days in 2019.

So here’s the story. Most governments want to negotiate new law to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions of weapon systems. Thousands of tech workers, academics, and scientists in the relevant private sector industries have asked them to do so, demanding that their work be kept in the service of humanity rather than of war and repression. The human rights, disarmament, feminist, and humanitarian organisations paying attention to this issue have been calling for a ban on AWS for five years to protect international law and the basic tenants of human morality and dignity. The International Committee of the Red Cross is saying there are major risks associated with these weapons that states must get serious about addressing. And yet, in this consensus-based UN forum, it is not possible to take action to prevent the development of weapons that will kill and destroy without human control, because the United States and Russia don’t want any action taken.

Will states stand up against this in the next two days? Will we get anything more than another ten days of talks over the next year? Will any of the governments who recognise the need for new law take the initiative to make it happen over the objections of the United States and Russia, as they did with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Mine Ban Treaty? Will any of the governments trying to keep the door open to develop AWS have a change of heart and start to act in the interests of humanity? Is this not a common project we could all embark upon together, to keep everyone on an even playing field—a field that does not include killer robots?

We have a chance, right now, to prevent a new technology of violence, a potentially devastating arms race, and unprecedented threats to human life and dignity. This is a rare opportunity. As the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said in our statement today, we must seize this moment to prevent us from becoming the worst possible version of ourselves.    

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