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CCW Report, Vol. 4, No. 3

Editorial: Melting down humanity
14 December 2016


Ray Acheson

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Aleppo is suffering “a complete meltdown of humanity,” said a UN human rights spokesperson on Tuesday. Massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings, mass arrests and detentions, and forced conscription of “military-aged males”—a classic but overlooked form of gender-based violence—are rampant throughout the eastern part of the city as Assad’s soldiers sweep through. Meanwhile in Geneva, states parties discussing implementation of their treaty on “excessively injurious” or indiscriminate weapons argued over whether or not they should set up a group of experts on anti-vehicle mines, the casualties of which are predominantly civilian; or whether they should “note concerns” raised by some states about the use of incendiary weapons or “condemn” the use of these weapons, which burn through skin causing incredible pain and permanent disfigurement.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s delegation in Syria, witnessing the slaughter in Aleppo, issued an urgent appeal for all parties in Aleppo to “put humanity above military objectives.” This is imperative in a situation where civilians and combatants are being slaughtered by government forces. But this must be the approach to everything all of the time—or else we risk Aleppo’s “complete meltdown of humanity” becoming the norm.

With so many state and non-state actors running roughshod over human rights and the laws of war in various on-going and recent conflicts, it may appear to already be a norm. But it is not. Most of us reject the conduct of hostilities we see happening around the world; we reject the notion that parties to conflict can do whatever they want to each other or to civilians—or why would we be in Geneva at all? Why would the United Nations still exist? So if we take as our premise that we do want to cooperate as human beings, and set rules, laws, and norms in the interest of preventing a total global meltdown, why is it so difficult for some governments to put humanity first when it comes to restricting or prohibiting weapons that cause immense human suffering?

The profits of war and violence are a compelling factor. The billions of dollars that can be made by corporations and their governmental arms dealers provide a lucrative incentive to develop and proliferate tools used to murder civilians, destroy cities, or repress populations.

But the tools of violence and war do not just generate profits for their manufacturers and dealers. They can also facilitate and even incentivise violence and war, thus creating their own demand.

Would Saudi Arabia be able to obliterate Yemen without the provision of weapons by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and others? Would Syria have been able to destroy its own cities and massacre its own civilians without the support of Russian and Iranian weapons? If resources were put elsewhere other than weapons development and production, would governments push for more and more markets to sell them? Without massive arms fairs and sales made over canapés and champagne, without subsidies and cost-overrun allowances to arms manufacturers, without resources sunk into universities by the military-industrial complex, would we see any of the catastrophic violence we see today?

Now, developments in weapons technology are propelling humanity towards a nightmare future in which machines may “make decisions” over life and death. As we discuss here in Geneva how to deal with this, we should understand that autonomous weapons (as drones before them) risk further incentivising repression, assassination, expansion of the battlefield, and so on. Whenever arguments are made about how such technology is intended to “save lives,” it’s important to realise that it also makes violence more accessible. Technology that takes choices and decisions about the use of force away from humans makes violence more remote and less accountable, and thus “easier” to resort to.

The majority of countries participating in the CCW debate clearly support further discussions on autonomous weapons, but to what end? So far eighteen governments have explicitly called for a prohibition of weapons that would operate without meaningful human control. A number of other countries have emphasised the importance of such control, but have not suggested how that can be retained if fully autonomous weapons are not prohibited. Discussions in a Group of Governmental Experts could hopefully bring more states towards supporting the negotiation of an autonomous weapon ban treaty, but in the meantime technological developments will continue. We have a narrow window to retain human control over violence and war. Missing this opportunity may later prove to be our gravest mistake yet, leading to a different kind of melting down of humanity.

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