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14 May 2014, Vol. 1, No. 2

Editorial: A cautiously optimistic first day
Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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The first day of the CCW’s Meeting of Experts, saw over 30 governments take the floor to deliver statements on autonomous weapons, in addition to representatives of international organisations including the Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and UN Institute for Disarmament Research, as well as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots  eight of its member organisations.

Expert presentations on autonomous technologies provided a solid foundation for the rest of the week’s discussions. The central theme was an examination of autonomy, how it’s used today, and the notion of “meaningful human control”. Two robotocists, Ronald Arkin and Noel Sharkey, took part in a debate on the possible advantages and disadvantages of autonomous weapon systems.

A number of key themes emerged. Most speakers raised concerns about whether these weapons would be able to comply with international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of distinction and proportionality. There was widespread recognition of the fundamental ethical and moral objections to these weapons and cautions over the potential impact of this new type of warfare on international peace and security.  

Canada’s response was that the existing legal framework of IHL is currently sufficient to regulate the use of fully autonomous weapons while the United States suggested, “it is premature to determine where these discussions might lead”. Others, like Switzerland, wanted this meeting to bring greater clarity on whether a policy response, legal or political, is needed or not, and some governments were already convinced of the way forward, including Pakistan which called for the CCW to negotiate a new protocol that would preemptively prohibit these weapons.

Civil society speakers outlined a clear response to the issue of fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urged governments to establish new international law on this topic, and Article 36 clarified that it wanted the “development of an explicit prohibition, under international humanitarian law, of weapons systems operating without meaningful human control over individual attacks.”

In response to arguments such as Canada’s assertion that “existing IHL is adequate”, Human Rights Watch countered that “if existing IHL is sufficient to address all problematic weapons, there would be no need for the CCW to exist.” HRW further noted that when the very nature of a weapon is objectionable, then additional and specific international law is warranted.

Day one of this meeting was a clear indication that the question of fully autonomous weapons is one that raises significant concerns amongst governments, international organisations and civil society. However, most governments still appeared hesitant to go into too much detail on these weapon systems and chose to focus instead on promoting the need for a thorough discussion of this issue, welcoming the CCW as an appropriate forum in which to do so. China and Russia, the two delegations that seemed the most hesitant about the decision last November to convene this meeting, did not reveal much about their approach to the issue. China did not speak during the general debate and Russia raised more questions than it answered.

It remains to be seen whether the thematic sessions and expert presentations will bring out more detailed thinking from government representatives during the remainder of the week, and if it can lead to a discussion on where to go from here.

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