CCW Report, Vol. 6, No. 11

Mind the downward spiral
4 September 2018

Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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Negotiations at the CCW group of governmental experts (GGE) on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) went until after 1:00 AM on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, states weren’t negotiating a treaty, but the conclusions and recommendations of the meeting. At the end of the long night, the only agreed recommendation is to continue next year in the CCW with the current mandate of exploring options for future work. The final decision about dates will be taken by states at the CCW’s annual meeting on 23 November 2018.

It was a frustrating conclusion to the fifth year of work on AWS, particularly for those of us calling for urgent action on this issue. But efforts have not been in vain. Momentum is undeniably growing for negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prevent the development and use of AWS.

The vast majority of states support commencing negotiations in 2019 on a new treaty that would prevent the development of fully AWS—which are defined by the majority of states as weapon systems that would operate without meaningful human control, i.e. that would not have humans controlling the use of force, or the critical functions of the machine such as the selection or engagement of targets. Of this majority, many are calling for a prohibition treaty. The Non-Aligned Movement, the largest bloc of states operating in the UN, has called for a legally binding instrument stipulating prohibitions and regulations of AWS. Austria, Brazil, and Chile collectively tabled a recommendation for a new CCW mandate “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapon systems.

A few others, mostly European states, expressed their interest in other mechanisms, such as a political declaration proposed by France and Germany. They envision a declaration to be a good vehicle to outline principles for the development and use of AWS, such as the necessity of human control in the use of force and the importance of human accountability. Some also suggested the development of a code of conduct on the development and use of AWS could be useful in this context.

Despite the differences in the treaty and declaration approaches, it seems that most states supporting either are agreed on one key thing: that fully AWS must never be developed or used. As the German delegation said, any outcome of this meeting should not read as if we are assuming AWS will be in operation one day, because the majority of delegations believe that weapon systems operating outside of human control are unacceptable and must never be deployed.

Despite the widespread convergence on this key point, neither the legally binding nor political actions are included in recommendations from the meeting because a tiny minority of states objected to them. Australia, Israel, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, and United States blocked anything beyond a discussion mandate for next year, arguing that concrete action on AWS is “premature” and demanding that the CCW explore potential “benefits” to developing and using AWS.

While this handful of countries was successful in ensuring that the GGE only recommended an extension of its discussion mandate for next year, they were not successful in dictating the content of the conclusions of the meeting. As delegations found themselves unexpectedly negotiating this document, those fighting for a decent outcome that reflected a majority view found themselves having to stand their ground against minority pressure to walk back from previous understandings. States agreed, more or less, to a set of “principles” to help guide future work. It should be noted that it did not seem that many expected to be negotiating these principles. This was not a pre-agreed outcome of the GGE’s work, and it led to confusion on Friday as states began to realise that they were expected to agree to text that could have implications for future work on AWS. Documents like this can be used in the future by governments to limit discussions; thus negotiating these principles, at a very late hour, became something that required stamina and guts—but not, apparently dinner. Fortunately, delegations engaged in rigorous snack sharing to help each other survive the night.

Perhaps the most disturbing interventions came from the United States and Russia when arguing that international human rights law does not necessarily apply to AWS. This is a significant and appalling back slide from discussions in 2016, when there was widespread agreement on this point. Hearing arguments that human rights law is irrelevant to machines programmed to kill without human control, whilst sitting in the Human Rights Council, was particularly galling. It reflects the downward spiral we can see outside of these conference rooms, where human rights seem increasingly to be treated by certain governments as optional.

Fortunately, a few governments stood up for human rights, such as Austria and Costa Rica. They insisted on the inclusion of references to ethics and human rights in the conclusions of the meeting. In addition, a number of Latin American governments—in particular Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, and Mexico—firmly and repeatedly objected to references to the alleged “benefits” of AWS. Standing firm in their position that AWS pose threats and challenges to international security and to international law, they refused to agree to a set of principles that would refer to potential “benefits” of AWS.

These examples should give heart to those of us asking states to stand up against the handful of weapons-addicted countries that perpetually undermine the advancement of international law and the development of collective, nonviolent security mechanisms and agreements. States have stood up against the main military powers in the context of banning landmines, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons. Most recently, African and Latin American governments stood up for human security by insisting that ammunition be included in the outcome document of the small arms review conference in June, refusing to back down to opposition from the United States.

We need this resolute normative leadership from governments on AWS (not to mention human rights more broadly). We have but a short window to prevent the development of these technologies. The question for states and for all those interested in preventing this impending nightmare—tech workers, programmers, scientists, academics, and activists—is what forum is most appropriate for our actions going forward. Can we continue within the CCW, which operates on the basis of consensus? This is currently allowing five countries to block progress. Should we look to the UN General Assembly or alternative multilateral forums as a better way to ensure a democratic, human-security centric approach to this vital issue?

We can perhaps find some wisdom in the parting words of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stepped down on 1 September. In an article penned for The Economist, he lamented that “too many summits and conferences held between states are tortured affairs that lack profundity but are full of jargon and tiresome clichés that are, in a word, meaningless. What is absent,” he argued, “is a sincere will to work together, though all will claim—again, under the lights and on camera—that they are wholly committed to doing so.” He criticised the international community, “led by too many feckless politicians,” for being “too weak to privilege human lives, human dignity, tolerance—and ultimately, global security—over the price of hydrocarbons and the signing of defence contracts.”

This behaviour was undoubtedly on full display at the CCW talks on AWS by the five countries objecting to real work to prevent an entirely preventable humanitarian and security catastrophe. But, there is hope in Prince Zeid’s message: that strength lies in grassroots leadership. That courage and defiance are where changes lies. That it is humanly possible to achieve great things in the face of powerful opposition, in particular if our movements and acts of resistance can be coordinated and integrated in even more powerful ways. It certainly seems there is scope for this to prevent AWS, as an act of preventing violations of human rights and human dignity, and of preventing the further abstraction of violence and war—all of which is important for protecting us against “those dangerous or useless politicians who now threaten humanity.” 

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