CCW Report, Vol. 9, No. 12

Editorial:  Multilateralism vs. consensus in the quest for a mandate
16 December 2021

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

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During Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the CCW Review Conference, Main Committee II resumed it work to discuss the revised draft report circulated by the Chair of the Committee. This report included language for the section on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) for the Review Conference’s final declaration, as well as language for the mandate of the next Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on AWS. The bottom line is that after informal consultations and deliberations behind closed doors, “compromise” text has been produced that does not contain a negotiating mandate for a legally binding instrument on AWS. That is, the mandate does not reflect the demands of the vast majority of countries participating in the GGE, nor does it reflect the interests of humanity.

Instead, the long single-sentence draft mandate is:

To consider proposals and elaborate, by consensus, possible measures, including taking into account the example of existing protocols within the Convention, and other options related to the normative and operational framework on emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapon systems, building upon the recommendations and conclusions contained in the reports of the Group of Governmental Experts related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapon systems, and bringing in expertise on legal, military, and technological aspects.

The specifics of the public conversation about the mandate are covered in the relevant article in this CCW Report. The summary is that nearly all delegations taking the floor expressed their deep regret at the lack of ambition in the mandate and indicated that they would only join consensus, if it was reached, in the spirit of flexibility and compromise. Some highlighted their reluctance to agree to this text and their frustration at being put in the position of having to accept this as the best possible option for agreement. Everyone was very supportive of the Chair and her team for their work in reaching this text; as in the GGE itself, the problem lies not with the facilitator of this work but with the handful of heavily militarised states that refuse to allow concrete, meaningful outcomes.

Inaction is not neutral

“That we could not move substance forward this year speaks volumes,” said Austria. While the argument has been made that broadening the mandate for 2022 was necessary to accommodate the divergence of views, Austria warned that such a broad mandate entails the severe danger of protracted discussion. “The logic of something being better than nothing is not very convincing on this issue; it is not commensurate with the urgency of the issue.”

Palestine, Panama, and Sierra Leone were among those to express profound disappointment with the draft mandate. Panama argued that demonstrating the CCW is the appropriate forum for this work requires genuine political will to fulfill its goals, rather than exploiting it for tactical geopolitical purposes, or media play, or keeping up appearances.

Palestine pointed out that postponing real action is not a neutral act. It is buying time for weapons developers to keep working before prohibitions or regulations exist. “This outcome reflects a fundamental inertia in the international community,” Palestine said, a tendency to wait until disaster occurs before acting, and to put short-term national interests above the long-term interests of humanity. It also noted that the public clearly sees what is coming—the threats posed by AWS on the battlefield, in police forces, and at borders

Indeed, just this week the US military decided that no one will be held responsible for a recent drone strike in Afghanistan that killed ten civilians. This is only the most recent of many devastating strikes for which no one has been held accountable. This is happening now with a weapon system that is under the control of human beings. What can we possibly hope for in a world where weapons operate without meaningful human control? Where machines are built to target human beings on the basis of sensors and software?

We know the answer, because of what has transpired throughout history, and because of what we are already seeing with many of the algorithms, artificial intelligence systems, and other technologies that are likely to be incorporated into AWS. Both Palestine and Sierra Leone noted that the global south will bear the brunt of these weapons. It is where these weapons are most likely be tested and used. But, as Palestine noted, once they can become quickly mass produced, they will affect everyone, including those in the highly militarised states. As Cuba noted earlier in the week, the failure to act against AWS now will lead us to a future similar to that we face with nuclear weapons—after they were developed, it took years for the international community to decide to abolish them, and it has not yet succeeded.

Multilateral mudpuddle

Despite the lamenting of the majority of HCPs in Thursday’s session, this mandate will be put to the plenary of the Review Conference on Friday for its consideration. At this stage, anything could still happen. There are other aspects of the draft declaration that have not yet been agreed, as elaborated elsewhere in the CCW Report. Autonomous weapons are not the only threat to human life and dignity under consideration at this Review Conference—work on incendiary weapons and mines other anti-personnel mines also hang in the balance.

But since the CCW operates by consensus, interpreted as absolute veto for every single delegation, it can only achieve a lowest common denominator outcome. The idea, in this case, that “everyone is equally unhappy with the compromise,” is categorically false. The outcome in consensus-based disarmament fora is rarely an actual compromise; it is much more frequently a capitulation to the interests of those who profit—politically and economically—from war and violence. Those states are holding the multilateral process hostage to their interests, forcing the majority to agree to “something rather than nothing,” even when that something might undermine the majority’s interests, and the interests of the entire planet.

The United States, in its comments on the draft GGE mandate, mused that some delegations have asked if we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism. It argued that disappointment is not the same as failure, and that lack of consensus is not the same as erosion of multilateralism. “It’s the essence of multilateralism … to recognise divergences but stay committed to keep working until we can achieve consensus,” the US delegation asserted. But this obscures the reality of what is like to work in a multilateral space in which governments like the US, Russia, and a handful of others continuously block consensus or grind down the resolve of other delegations until they get their way. We have seen Russia engage in this behaviour in both of the main committees this week, where it has even objected to mere references to explosive weapons, cluster munitions, or the Chair’s summary from the GGE. This is not multilateralism, this is bullying.

While a few delegations expressed hope that a better mandate can be adopted next time, or that meaningful work can be conducted under this broad mandate, Austria’s expressed pessimism is well founded. For decades the CCW has struggled, and failed, to prove itself a legitimate forum for meaningful work across many issues. It sets minimalist goals for itself, and fails to reach them. Yet many HCPs seem to see the CCW as an end in itself, rather than a vehicle to stop the arms race, facilitate disarmament, and protect human beings from weapons and war. Claiming that the CCW is “the” forum for work on any of the issues before it is tantamount to claiming that the holding of meetings within the structure of the CCW is more important than actually achieving the Convention’s stated goals and objectives.

Momentum for meaningful action

Multilateralism is key. But multilateralism thrives under democracy, not autocracy. Meaningful, productive multilateralism requires the interests of all, not a few, to guide work and achieve outcomes. Multilateralism is clearly at is best outside of consensus-based forums. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Mine Ban Treaty—these are all effective instruments that have been negotiated in democratic processes open to all interested states, civil society, and international organisations.

This should be what states that advocated for a legally binding instrument on AWS during the GGE and the Review Conference look to for inspiration and guidance. It is clear that momentum has grown incredibly for a legal instrument that contains prohibitions, restrictions, and regulations on AWS. This is the undeniable reality of the 2021 GGE in particular, where the vast majority of participants clearly and repeatedly put on record their preference for negotiations. This is what must drive forward work on AWS, not the limitations imposed by a handful of states that are actively developing these weapons.

Outside of the CCW, public opinion is likewise surging in favour of a ban on AWS. Tech workers, scientists, roboticists, and others are staking their claim already that they will not help build or design AWS. This movement will continue to grow as the public demands, more and more fiercely, the kind of action that is required from their governments to prevent the most dystopian future imaginable: a world in which machines kill people. Governments here have a choice: to let this future happen, or to work hard, now, for a different one. Which side of history will you choose to be on?

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