CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 5

Be bolder to prevent a future of killer robots
20 August 2019

Mary Wareham | Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

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Expectations are rising that states will take bold action to address mounting concerns over fully autonomous weapons aka killer robots. There’s increasing recognition that permitting the development of weapons systems that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control raises a myriad of moral, legal, accountability, technological, and security concerns.

Yet the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) is unfortunately still aiming too low and going too slow for our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

We recognise the work that states have put into the eight CCW meetings on this topic since 2014. We were encouraged to see states agree on a set of “possible guiding principles” at last year’s GGE. This showed agreement is possible in this forum, which can often feel polarised by today’s troubled world.

But the recommendations contained in the draft conclusions and recommendations of this Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on killer robots are unambitious and ambiguous. More guiding principles and other measures that fall short of new international law are completely insufficient to prevent a future of fully autonomous weapons. We remain deeply disappointed at the lack of reference to the calls from many states to move to negotiate a legally-binding instrument, including the demands from 28 states for a ban treaty.

The CCW is a framework convention, which some regard as a “normative framework,” that was built to be flexible enough to respond to emerging threats and new developments. If it cannot rise to deal with the challenges posed by killer robots then it’s time for another road to the ban treaty that we seek.

Our coalition of non-governmental organisations is disturbed at how these CCW talks on fully autonomous weapons have become more technical and less values-based since they were formalized by the Fourth Review Conference in 2016. We’re worried that the CCW is no longer looking at key concerns such as ethics and morality, potential humanitarian impact, and human rights.

We firmly agree with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that a “human-centered approach” is needed here at the CCW. Look at how the phrase “human control” is gradually being written out of the CCW lexicon and replaced by weaker wordings of human judgment, human element, human machine interaction, human responsibility, and so on. To us, the concept of human control is stronger and necessary because it is clear and comprehensive, encompassing both judgment and actions.

Enshrining the principle of meaningful human control over the use of force requires both prohibitions and positive obligations to ensure that these weapons systems do not undermine ethical values.

Over the past year the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots coalition has nearly doubled in size, to a current total of 113 non-governmental organizations in 57 countries. As our numbers grow so does our ability to engage new endorsers and supporters.

The next generation faces unprecedented threats, from climate change to killer robots. Is it morally acceptable to leave the task of regulating lethal autonomous weapons systems to them? Because that’s what may happen if serious action is not taken here at the CCW.

Be bolder and stronger. This GGE should recommend to the next Meeting of High Contracting Parties that the CCW begin negotiations on a new protocol to retain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit fully autonomous weapons.


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