CCW Report, Vol. 9, No. 9

Editorial: From “constructive ambiguity” to unambiguous destruction
9 December 2021

Ray Acheson | Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

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Once again, states that are actively developing autonomous weapon systems (AWS) have managed to subvert diplomatic attempts to develop any restrictions, regulations, or prohibitions for such systems. The final session of the 2021 Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on AWS failed to agree to any recommendations for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Review Conference, set to take place next week. After months of work on an ambitious draft report, the GGE ultimately succumbed to the tyranny of consensus, leaving it up to the Review Conference to determine if any progress will be possible within the CCW. Since the same delegations will be determining the fate of the GGE there, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome. What this means for most countries, which have already worked for years to prevent the development and use of AWS, is that action is needed elsewhere.

Destroying “constructive ambiguity”

During the final three days of the GGE, participants deliberated over three drafts of the Group’s report. This report was to contain recommendations for the CCW Review Conference, including next steps for the GGE’s work—including the adoption of a political declaration, the development of an instrument, and a series of topics for further discussion. Participants suggested edits to various iterations of the text, seeming to advance the Group closer and closer to a consensus outcome. While not as precise or as progressive as most participants would have wanted it to be, the report contained what some UN insiders refer to as “constructive ambiguity” to allow for the possibility of further work.

However, in the final hours a few heavily militarised states—led by Russia, Israel, India, and the United States—repeatedly took the floor to call for the deletion of the most critical sections of the report. The main sticking points were the “general commitments” and the “way forward” sections of the report. While most states are ready to accept that prohibitions and regulations of AWS are necessary, including through a legally binding instrument and/or other mechanisms, a tiny handful of states continued to resist any language that would, in their view, place any constraints on their ability to build new tools of violence and oppression. This same minority also objected to the report’s inclusion of ethical considerations, challenges of social biases, the relevance of human rights, and other critical elements.

In the end, the GGE was unable to adopt any substantive aspects of the draft report. All the recommendations that participants worked on the past few months were turned into a Chair’s summary, to be submitted to the Review Conference under the authority of GGE Chair Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve of Belgium. The final report made no recommendation regarding a mandate for future work, leaving this entirely up to the CCW Review Conference. High contracting parties (HCPs) to the CCW only managed to agree on two sentences to describe what the GGE had achieved: “The Group considered different proposals on how to reflect the deliberations including possible conclusions and recommendations of the Group, but no consensus was reached;” and “A summary of the discussion held during the meetings of the Group, prepared under the Chairperson's responsibility, is attached as [Annex II].”

Taking action elsewhere

Like all consensus-based disarmament forums, the CCW has proven itself once again to be controlled by a handful of states that put the profits of their military-industrial complexes, as well as their perception that power is derived through weapons and war, above the interests of humanity. This is by no means the first time this has happened. To effectively deal with the humanitarian catastrophe created by antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, states and civil society had to bring those issues outside of the CCW to prevent further harm and provide for victims. To make progress on nuclear disarmament, states had to go outside the consensus-oppressed Conference on Disarmament and nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate and adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the UN General Assembly.

The CCW has one last chance to prove itself worthy of the claim that it is the appropriate forum to address AWS. The best way for it to do so is to adopt a mandate for 2022 to negotiate and adopt a legally binding instrument on AWS. This would reflect the clear demand of the majority of states, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and a broad spectrum of civil society, including, as Stop Killer Robots noted in its final statement, “thousands of campaigners, 187 NGOs in 67 countries, to include world leading experts in AI and technology, lawyers who practice in the fields of human rights and international humanitarian law, academics and researchers from universities in all continents, leaders in faith and ethics, young people, scouts, students, medical professionals, artists, musicians, humanitarians, activists, individuals and families from all walks of life.”

There is more attention currently being paid to this issue than likely any other on the disarmament agenda. People understand how this issue will affect them personally, and what it will mean for humanity. Most of the world wants to safeguard human rights and dignity from digital dehumanisation. Most of the world wants to maintain meaningful human control over weapons. If a handful of states in the CCW refuse to act, then the rest must seek an alternative path forward. Killer robots are not inevitable, they are a choice. If states that have raised their voices in favour of restrictions and prohibitions over the past several years choose to do nothing, to allow the issue to wallow in the CCW for another two, five, ten, twenty years, they are actively choosing a future with autonomous weapons and all the horror we know will follow. We can prevent this future, starting now.

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