CCW Report, Vol. 9, No. 8

Editorial: Good faith and ambition need apply
4 December 2021

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

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As the final session of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on autonomous weapon systems (AWS) got underway this week in Geneva, the public was paying more attention than ever. Following the recent launch of the joint Stop Killer Robots and Amnesty International’s game “Escape the Scan” and their petition to prohibit AWS, media articles have continued to proliferate with concerns about increasing autonomy in weapons. Yet during discussions during the first two days of this GGE session, a tiny number of states continue to obfuscate and delay action that is imperative to saving human lives and protecting human rights and dignity. 

The urgency of an instrument 

The GGE is reading through the draft report published by the Chair in November. It contains substantive sections on the discussions held throughout 2021 and proposes recommendations to the CCW Review Conference, which will convene in December. The draft report currently includes recommendations for the adoption of a political declaration and for the commencement of negotiations on an instrument. This latter call is critical. It will allow states to start working on a new agreement in 2022 to prohibit and regulate AWS, as called for by the majority of GGE participants as well as the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross, groups of scientists, faith leaders, military veterans, tech workers, and civil society organisations.

This GGE’s work will continue next week until 8 December. High contracting parties (HCPs) to the CCW must seize this opportunity to call for, and adopt, a mandate to negotiate a legally binding instrument on AWS. They should make it clear that this instrument should contain both prohibitions and positive obligations; and commit to work urgently on those negotiations, allocating the necessary time and resources.

The Stop Killer Robots campaign continues to advocate for a legally binding instrument that includes a general obligation to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force; prohibitions on autonomous weapons systems that cannot be used with meaningful human control and prohibitions on systems that would target human beings; and positive obligations to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained over systems that are not prohibited. 

Time for action-oriented outcomes

After eight years of discussions in Geneva, a mandate to negotiate a legal instrument is essential. As Palestine noted this week, the weight of public opinion and government support is behind a legally binding instrument. Yet this goal has so far been frustrated by a small minority of states. Palestine noted that many who say the CCW is the only appropriate framework to consider AWS say in the same breath that there should be no negotiations, preventing those who want more concrete outcomes from having them in this forum. This cannot continue.

During the first two days of this GGE, most delegations have shown significant flexibility while negotiating various paragraphs of the draft report. The Philippines said it is encouraged by the openness expressed by many and invited the remaining few to work for a constructive outcome. Otherwise, as Nigeria warned, the “inherent inconsistencies and biases that could steer activities of AWS continue to predict inaccuracy and ultimately chaos.” These weapons must be prohibited, it argued, cautioning that the negation of meaningful human control over the operation of weapon systems “could ultimately spell the supremacy of machines over humans,” which is unacceptable.

“Throughout the history of humanity, millions have suffered from the use of inhumane and
indiscriminate weapons,” noted Stop Killer Robots in a statement to the GGE. “We must learn from the lessons of the past and take this opportunity to reject digital dehumanisation and the automation of killing in weapon systems. When the history books are written about this process, future generations will recognise which states took leadership and were united in their effort to safeguard our rights.”

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