CCW Report, Vol. 10, No. 1
Editorial: Autonomous weapons in a time of war
6 March 2022
Ray Acheson | Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Last year, participants in the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on autonomous weapons convened many weeks of valuable discussions about the challenges posed by the potential development and use of autonomous weapons. These discussions resulted in an emerging agreement about what international legal restrictions and prohibitions are necessary to prevent them, with most participants supporting immediate, concrete action. But in December, a handful of states that are actively developing increasingly autonomous technologies of violence, blocked the way forward for this issue at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). They would only accept ten days of further discussion, rather than setting aside several weeks to negotiate a new instrument, as supported by the majority.
So once again, states are convening this week in Geneva for yet another discussion. After nearly a decade of such talks, this is wholly inadequate and gravely irresponsible. Related technology developments are proceeding apace in each of the states blocking progress at the CCW, including Russia, the United States, Israel, and a few others.
Further, as a particularly egregious backdrop to this week’s discussions, Russia is more than a week into its illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, in which it has violated the UN Charter, international humanitarian law (IHL), and international human rights law. It has bombed and shelled cities, using explosive weapons in populated areas that have killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, homes, and schools. It has used cluster munitions, which are prohibited under international law, and it has targeted nuclear power plants, which is also prohibited under international law.
One of Russia’s—and other intransigent delegations—arguments is that IHL is sufficient to regulate the use of autonomous weapons. No further action is necessary, they say; the rules of war will suffice. States just need to implement it. But we are seeing right now in real time how well the rules of war suffice, and how well the states blocking progress at the GGE implement it.
Of course, it was already clear that these states violate IHL. It was clear in Russia’s bombardments of Syrian civilians, towns, and cities, the United States’ bombardment of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and so on. It is also clear from other countries’ arms transfers fueling the targeting of civilians in other conflicts. The war in Ukraine is not unique by any measure; it is the latest in a long line of examples of exactly why we must prohibit autonomous weapons now.
As most countries in the world stand to condemn Russia’s use of force against Ukraine and its targeting of civilians, can they imagine what this war would look like with autonomous weapons? It seems that weapons with some degree of autonomy are already being deployed; Ukraine has reportedly used its Turkish-made TB2 drones, while Russia could use the Lantset, a “kamikaze” drone with some autonomous capabilities, which it has reportedly used in Syria. If the international community allows the continued development of autonomous weapon systems, the risks of increasingly mechanised, AI-induced bloodshed and dehumanisation in armed conflict will only continue to rise.
There is no more time for business as usual. Delegates gathered at this latest round of discussions must ask themselves, what are they here to do, if not to prevent more horror and violence around the world? Will reiterating what has been said over and over for the past eight years bring us any closer to agreement? Will allowing autonomy in weapon systems to increase bring peace and security or prevent human suffering—or the opposite? How, in the current context, can anyone committed to the principles of the UN Charter and international law believe that further automating the killing of human beings will bring stability or well-being to the world?
Stalemate at the CCW is only benefiting the handful of governments that treat the world as their personal chessboard for geopolitics, in complete disdain for human life and dignity. It is benefitting the war profiteers, the weapons developers and tech corporations that will make billions in profits while people die, have their lives and families torn apart.
At the recent UN General Assembly emergency session on Ukraine, many delegations spoke profoundly about their belief in the UN Charter and international law, in the pursuit of peace through dialogue and disarmament rather than the use of force. These are the countries who must guide the work of the international community on autonomous weapons.
The weaponised states have had their turn. They have led us to a world where two trillion dollars a year is spent on militarism, which only fuels conflict and suffering; they have led us to the brink of nuclear war, by refusing to negotiate for disarmament. We cannot allow these same states to lead us into a state of autonomous warfare, where the most militarised countries in the world deploy their machines against human beings. The time to stop such a future is right now.