CCW Report, Vol. 8, No. 1
Editorial: the importance of preventing the autonomy of violence
21 September 2020
Barely a week ago, it did not look like this meeting would be convened. Postponed in June and again in August, it wasn’t clear that the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) would meet to continue discussions on autonomous weapon systems at all this year. Even still, it is not clear if the state objecting to the convening of this meeting—Russia—will throw procedural wrenches into the works once the meeting commences. Understanding this dynamic is important for understanding where we sit much more broadly and profoundly in relation to the creeping autonomy of violence.
The postponement of the GGE’s work this year is in the first order related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many other intergovernmental processes, the UN’s work on autonomous weapons has been delayed due to the inability of participants to meet in person at the United Nations in Geneva or New York. However, other processes have managed during this time to convene online. States parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty convened virtual meetings; the UN General Assembly has managed to adopt 55 resolutions and decisions since March; and the Human Rights Council has adapted to virtual formats for much of its work.
To fill the time these past few months, the former Chair of the GGE requested states submit written commentaries on autonomous weapon systems (an initial analysis for these commentaries is included in this edition of the CCW Report) and hosted two informal “fireside chats”. But he couldn’t garner consensus on convening the GGE’s formal work, despite the abovementioned models available for online discussions. There are of course drawbacks to virtual meetings: interpretation, time zones, and Internet access can all be challenging; the side conversations made possible through in-person meetings must be scheduled rather than happening spontaneously on the margins of meetings; advocacy for activists is more difficult for the same reason. But there are ways around this—breakout rooms, chat functions, webinars, and other convenings on the margins all enable new and potentially even more equitable participation and accessibility than having to travel to Geneva.
Advancing autonomy of violence
Thus, it seems that the opposition to commencing work on autonomous weapons has more to do with politics than it does with procedural or technical challenges. This becomes even more clear when seen in light of the antics at the GGE last year, when the same country that is now objecting vociferously to the September hybrid in-person/online GGE meeting also tried to limit the number of days the GGE would meet this year and confine its mandate as much as possible.
But this isn’t just about one country—there are several governments that benefit from less international work on autonomous weapon systems. As their military-industrial complexes advance with the work of building these systems, the last thing they want is scrutiny from governments and activists. While the GGE is still only limited to a discussion mandate, rather than negotiation of any legally binding rules, it is clear from recent history that international processes establish norms against certain behaviour or certain weapon systems, even if not all states agree to the outcomes of those processes. Delaying the GGE’s work on autonomous weapons means that the states pursuing them have more likelihood of finalising the development of these weapons before any meaningful preventative action takes place.
The world we don’t want
This is significant. The pursuit of autonomous weapons says a lot about the kind of technologies of violence and control certain governments feel they have the right to possess and deploy. In a world where weapons are treated as tools of power, where violence and subordination of others is how governments, and the economic and political elite, maintain their authority and their privilege, increasing the remoteness and abstraction of violent technologies is incredibly perilous.
Autonomous weapons pose an egregious threat to the safety and security of the majority of people in the world. Weapons that target and attack certain individuals or groups, based on characteristics or behaviour coded in algorithms and detected by sensors, has implications for the normalisation and abstraction of violence beyond that to which our world is already subjected. Technologies of increasingly automated violence need to be considered in the context of technologies for coercive state power that already exist, and where it looks like we are heading absent any effective challenge.
Understanding how autonomous weapons fit into the structures and apparatus of militarism, surveillance, and exclusion that are necessary for the “national security state” and the pursuit of “full spectrum dominance” isvital. These weapons are not just material technologies, but also reflect broader policies and structures of racism and patriarchy that seek to divide, categorise, and process human beings as objects.
As the United Nations turns 75, and as member states seek to “Shape Peace Together” as the supposed guiding philosophy for their work this year, it’s imperative to recognise what autonomous weapons mean to peace, what they mean for global cooperation and collective security, what they mean for fulfilling the promise of the UN Charter to “end the scourge of war for succeeding generations.”
Autonomous weapons are about autonomising the worst of humanity: our biases and our violence. They will undermine peace, they will be used to control, confine, and kill human beings on the basis of algorithms, they will make human death more abstract, our lives changed or ended in a Kafkaesque world in which there is no human responsibility. This cannot be the kind of “peace” the UN wants to shape. This cannot be the world we allow to be built for us.
This meeting of the GGE should go ahead, if for nothing else then to show to countries that oppose its convening that vetoes have no place in multilateralism. But the states, international organisations, and civil society members that want to truly shape peace together and advance the UN Charter’s goals and objectives must get creative about how to prevent the development of autonomous weapon systems. This forum has not enabled us to progress the way we need to over the past seven years. The action we need to prevent this particular dystopia is upon us and if our experience over the past few months has taught us anything it should be that creative collective care and mutual support and aid is the only thing we have to rely on. This should be the model for us at the international level as we move from endless discussions to meaningful negotiation.