CCW adopts mandate to discuss killer robots

Mia Gandenberger | Reaching Critical Will

On Friday afternoon in Geneva, governments agree to start international talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWs), so-called “killer robots”. These discussions will be held 13–16 May 2014 in Geneva.

During the informal consultations organised by the Chair designate of the Meeting of States Parties of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), Ambassador Simon-Michel Jean-Hughes of France, states expressed their interest in starting work on this issue. On Monday, 11 November, the French ambassador put forward a mandate to hold a three-day informal meeting of experts to discuss “the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.” The Chair will present a report of the discussions to the 2014 Meeting of States Parties. In the final report adopted on 15 November 2013 the duration of the meeting was extended to four days (paragraph 32 of Final Report).

In statements delivered to the CCW, many states underlined the need to keep up with emerging technological developments and to consider the implications of these developments for international law, especially international humanitarian law (IHL).

While many delegations highlighted the complexity of the issue, most emphasized the need to improve understandings of the political, military, technical, ethical, and humanitarian implications of such potential weapons. The majority of states speaking at the CCW this year, such as Austria, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, Cuba, Egypt, European Union, France, Ghana, Greece, Germany, Holy See, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden,  Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States expressed support for the idea of an informal meeting of experts to address the issue of fully autonomous weapons.

Some delegations, such as France, Mexico, and Pakistan specifically highlighted concerns about the absence of human intervention in the process of the decision to use lethal force, as well as the resulting difficulties for accountability and responsibility. However a more in-depth discussion of other aspects of killer robots did not take place.

Some delegations, in particular India, China, and Cuba, had comments and suggestions for the mandate. India asked for the words “in the context of the objectives and purposes of the CCW” to be added, which was included in the final version. China, Russia, and Belarus suggested changes in the dates for the informal discussions. Cuba wanted to delete the entire reference to “emerging technologies,” which was rejected by Israel and the United States. This in turn caused the Chinese delegation to suggest including “existing” in addition to “emerging technologies” in the mandate. None of those suggestions were possible to take on board, but fortunately did not affect the consensus decision.

While the CCW was generally welcomed as the “appropriate forum” to address this issue, some delegations, such as Austria and Brazil also underscored that discussions on this matter should not preclude other UN bodies to take action on this issue in accordance with their respective mandate, such as the Human Rights Council (HRC). A few delegations such as Brazil also highlighted the report to the HRC prepared by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, on Lethal Autonomous Robotics.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pointed out that it is unclear whether autonomous weapons could ever be used in accordance with IHL, given the little or no human control involved. Civil society representatives of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, such as Article 36 and Human Rights Watch, specifically raised the problem of compliance with the IHL principles of distinction and proportionality in regards to the use of these weapons systems, as well as the question of accountability.

Similarly to many delegations, civil society representatives raised concerns with the lack of human control of such weapons systems. IKV Pax Christi stressed that “outsourcing human judgment and morality to machines is simply unacceptable,” while the International Committee for Robotic Arms Control (ICRAC) underscored the need for “meaningful human deliberation and control over the use of violence” to remain the cornerstone of any eventual global policymaking on robotic weapons. In addition, both Article 36 and Human Rights Watch underscored that autonomous weapon systems are not only relevant to the CCW, but other UN bodies such as the HRC as well.

The issue of killer robots has evolved with lightening speed in UN terms. Only six months after the issue was raised in a UN meeting for the first time, by Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Christof Heyns at the Human Rights Council, governments have agreed to start international talks on how to address this issue.

The speedy pace and significant interest in this issue looks promising for starting a process on preventing these weapon systems from being deployed. It is now essential that all governments formulate policies and prepare for substantive talks next year on the technical, legal, and ethical aspects of killer robots.

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