CCW Report, Vol. 10, No. 10

Road to nowhere
29 July 2022

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

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Another Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on autonomous weapons concludes and another hollowed out report, void of any meaningful conclusions or commitments, is adopted.

After nine years of work at the United Nations, the GGE desperately needed to adopt conclusions that would provide a clear framework for responding to the challenges of autonomy in weapon systems. The original draft addressed many of the key elements that could form the basis of a coherent legal response, an outcome supported by the majority of delegations participating in the GGE.

But once again, the final draft, which was adopted at the end of Friday’s meeting, was stripped of its substantive content, leaving the Group with nothing to show for all the hard work undertaken this year. All the details about elements and possible measures for an agreement on autonomous weapons were removed. All of the conclusions about what kinds of control are necessary, and possible processes to achieve that control, were taken out. After spending most of the week negotiating these details, the refusal of a tiny handful of states to accept them meant they were just deleted from the report altogether.

Instead, the conclusions section of the report now just briefly outlines the types of proposals that were discussed, affirms international humanitarian law, briefly acknowledges ethical perspectives, and recognises that states are responsible for wrongful acts in accordance with international law.

Meanwhile, the mandate for next year’s GGE has simply been rolled over from this year, despite the demand from most delegations for a concrete commitment to elaborate proposals or negotiate a new protocol. And the length of the 2023 session remains an open question. With Russia continuing to insist on only 10 days and many others calling for 20, this issue has once again been kicked down the road, for the CCW meeting of high contracting parties to contend with in November 2022.

Final theatrics

Not only was the final text a disappointment, but so was the final day of the GGE’s work. Throughout day, the Chair conducted bilateral meetings with delegations. Since the plenary resumed after 17:00 CEST to consider this new, watered-down text, the Chair had to release the interpreters and move to another room, which Russia used once again as an opportunity to try to kick out civil society. Canada, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Costa Rica, Norway, New Zealand, Pakistan, Austria, South Africa, and the United States supported civil society’s participation and right to be there. The Chair upheld his decision from yesterday to allow NGO participation.

This attack on civil society participation was, once again, absurd. NGOs have participated in many late-night meetings of the CCW. We were there when the GGE negotiated and adopted its final reports in 2018 and 2019, among many others. These meetings, while lacking interpretation, have been public meetings. Russia’s attempt to unilaterally declare them “informal” and to demand its own interpretation of the rules of procedure is not only an assault on civil society, but on the entire process and on the Chair’s leadership. It is also an insult to all the other delegations trying to do real work, not to mention to the valuable contributions that NGOs, academics, and other civil society actors have made to this process over many, many years.

This aggressive pushback on civil society is not unique to the GGE on autonomous weapons. Over in the open-ended working group (OEWG) on information and communities technologies this week in New York, Russia and other delegations also objected to the participation of dozens of NGOs. Russia also blocked the modalities for civil society participation for this 2021–2025 OEWG for most of last year. (See the Cyber Peace & Security Monitor from Reaching Critical Will for details.) The assault on civil society’s work in the United Nations is widespread and ongoing.

The arguments put forward by Russia against civil society participation at the GGE were, as many delegates pointed out, invalid, incorrect, and very often contradictory. It was another evening of the theatre of the absurd, where one delegation wasted time to ensure that that the no changes could be made to the bland text, or perhaps even hoping that the report would not be adopted at all.

But Russia’s opposition to the presence of civil society is also absurd because it is already clear which governments are derailing the work of the GGE. It is clear from every statement and written submission, whether made in formal or informal mode, in-person or virtual or hybrid, exactly who is blocking progress—and why. Trying to rewrite the rules of procedure to get rid of civil society will not allow the Russian delegation, or any other, to hide from the role they are playing in history.

This year, like last year, has shown the limits of what can be done in the CCW. Certain states have no intention of accepting any limitations over their ability to develop and deploy autonomous weapons. Unfortunately, not all governments are willing do anything about this.

The urgency of progress

A significant number of states in this room have political platforms that mandate action on this issue. Many have even put concrete proposals for action on the table, some legally binding, others more political in nature. Their own efforts are clearly frustrated. Yet, they continue to claim that these fruitless discussions are sufficient. As Stop Killer Robots said, too many states are complicit in this deadlock.

During this year’s meeting, delegations wasted time talking about whether the CCW is an appropriate forum or the only appropriate forum for dealing with the issue of autonomous weapons. This question has been definitively answered: it is the least appropriate forum for addressing the serious legal, ethical, moral, political, and security challenges posed by autonomous weapons.

Civil society remains committed to working with all states that want to achieve progress and prevent autonomous violence. We are ready for meaningful action to achieve the legally binding instrument that the world urgently needs. Which states are ready?

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