CCW Report, Vol. 10, No. 2

We will not weaponise our way out of horror
14 March 2022

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

Last week’s Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on autonomous weapons was hijacked by the Russian government, which refused to allow the meeting to function in a formal mode. Arguing that its delegation was being “discriminated against”—because it was more difficult for its experts to travel from Moscow to Geneva under the sanctions imposed in response to its illegal invasion of and war against Ukraine—the Russian government wasted two of the GGE’s five days, and then only permitted substantive discussions to begin in informal mode. This meant there was limited transparency and accessibility for civil society and other delegates that could not travel to Geneva due to the pandemic, war, climate crisis, economic inequalities, or other reasons—resulting in actual discrimination, instead of the perceived “slights” against the Russian delegation.

After slogging through the mire of procedure for the first two days, delegations informally discussed concrete proposals tabled by various states. The Chair also tabled guiding questions for discussion, in the form of a non-paper. A small number of delegations welcomed the non-paper as useful for focusing future discussion around key questions. Because the webcast was turned off from Wednesday to Friday, Reaching Critical Will was unable to follow the discussions. This means our reporting from this session is limited to second-hand accounts of what transpired. We are not able to provide details of the discussions but instead give a brief sketch of their scope. This situation demonstrates the urgency of moving this issue to a forum where transparency, accessibility, and inclusivity can be assured, so that meaningful progress can be made.

Consensus strikes again

The Russian government’s disruptive tactics were only possible because the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which hosts the GGE, operates on the basis of consensus. Treated as unanimity, this gives every state a veto over what can and cannot be done. Using consensus-as-veto is how Russia managed to prevent the CCW from agreeing last year to take action on incendiary weapons and mines other than anti-personnel mines, even mentioning cluster munitions (which it is now using to kill civilians in Ukraine), and from adopting a more progressive mandate for the autonomous weapons GGE.

Some delegations recognised this problem. Ireland warned that the CCW’s credibility will deepen until it becomes a crisis if individual delegations continue to weaponise procedural issues in order to prevent substantive discussions. New Zealand said the fact that the GGE is unable to manage this situation “must look increasingly bizarre” to the outside world and to civil society. Outside of the UN, people are being killed. This should offer a sense of urgency to the work of the GGE, New Zealand argued.

Most delegations also pointed out that Russia’s claims of discrimination were ridiculous. As Germany said, Ukraine is the victim, not Russia. The sanctions imposed against Russia are a consequence for its illegal war. Furthermore, while it may be less convenient for Russian diplomats to travel from Moscow to Geneva right now, it is not impossible—the fact that there is no one from capital in the room is a deliberate choice of the Russian delegation, Germany argued. Switzerland also clarified that is has no travel restrictions in place that would prevent Russian government officials from entering its country. The United Kingdom reflected on the fact that as recently as December 2021, it, and a few other states, were prevented from attending the CCW Sixth Review Conference because of COVID-related travel restrictions but did not hold up the Conference as a result.

Portugal pointed to an issue of real discrimination when it comes to lack of inclusivity, noting that on the first day of the GGE only three women spoke, and only one was representing a state. It also highlighted the exclusion of civil society organisations. When the meeting moved to informal mode and the webcast was turned off—at Russia’s insistence—a number of delegations reportedly lamented the further exclusion of civil society or the ability of relevant colleagues in capital to follow along.

Proposals on the table

Once the webcast was turned off, only civil society colleagues in Geneva were able to participate in or monitor the discussions. A few delegations apparently continued to make generic remarks about their positions on autonomous weapon systems (AWS), with a minority even suggesting it is still too early to be talking about specific proposals. Republic of Korea, which is developing AWS, said it believes the depth and scope of common understanding about AWS is in the early stages, while Israel, which is also developing AWS, said discussions should “avoid apocalyptic imagery” and only engage in “informed” discussions.

Nevertheless, from Wednesday to Friday, delegations discussed three different proposals:

Since these proposals were tabled just before the GGE began or during the GGE, most delegations participating in the discussions asked clarifying questions and offered initial reactions.

Principles and “good practices”

Several delegations reportedly expressed support for the US-led proposal, indicating that the “good practices” approach was a reasonable compromise given divergent views in the GGE. It must be noted that most of the countries involved with drafting this proposal are actively developing autonomous weapon technologies. Palestine’s delegation highlighted how paradoxical it is that the states involved in drafting these proposals are simultaneously exploring ways to use artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies to apply to critical functions in weapon systems. It warned that this confirms concerns that the Palestinian delegation has raised previously that AWS will be developed and used by the global north and tested and used in the global south.

Many delegations reportedly said that the principles contained in this document were far too permissive of the development and use of autonomous weapons. New Zealand, for example, apparently noted that the proposal seems to draw extensively from the 2021 GGE Chair’s summary while omitting elements it and other delegations think important to address, especially prohibitions and restrictions. New Zealand pointed out that this proposal seems to permit autonomous weapon systems that select targets without a human operator, for example. Other delegations raised similar concerns and asked questions about the limits of this proposal.

Stop Killer Robots argued that the US-led proposal “tends to obscure the key issues that actually need attention,” noting that it reiterates existing law without setting new standards. By adopting a framework of voluntary “good practices,” noted the campaign, the US-led proposal “would create an ecosystem that green lights the development and use of autonomous weapon systems without clarifying or promoting the necessary limitations or obligations in use. This is dangerous, and must be avoided.”

IHL compendium

The UK’s proposal focuses on the creation of a manual for the application of international humanitarian law (IHL) and agreed best practice to AWS. It would seek to increase understanding about the ways in which systems of autonomy can be used “ethically” and in accordance with IHL. This came from a suggestion by Portugal and others in previous GGE meetings for a compendium such as the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies or the Tallin Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations.

Some delegations reportedly indicated their support for such a document, but several also pointed out that this effort, while possibly useful, is wholly insufficient to deal with the threats and risks posed by AWS. It assumes the development and use of AWS, while most governments and civil society groups advocate for their prohibition and restriction.

Stop Killer Robots argued that the UK proposal “falls far short of the work towards a legal instrument that we think is necessary; however, this proposal by our reading, poses relevant open questions for further work.” The relevance of those questions, the campaign pointed out, demonstrates that legal interpretations are not settled. “It is imperative that solutions are achieved through establishing internationally agreed legal principles, and not merely through national policy formulations, which would create discrepancies around the world in the standards that we need to safeguard against the dangers posed by autonomous weapon systems.”

Ethics and intersectionality

Some of these dangers were reiterated by various delegations, though they have been well expressed over the last eight years of GGE deliberations. In a joint statement, Chile and Mexico reportedly highlighted some new work outside the CCW, noting that AWS have recently been addressed by the Special Rapporteur for the rights of persons with disabilities. Chile and Mexico argued that the historical and societal implications of AWS require the consideration of underlying intersectionality, as well as ethics.

Indeed, many delegations reportedly expressed concern that ethics are missing from the US-led and UK proposals, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of countries have been clear about ethics needing to guide the GGE’s work. Palestine, for example, noted that ethics, principles of humanity, and dictates of public conscience are at the heart of concerns about AWS. While it welcomed the efforts of the states involved in these two proposals, Palestine noted that these proposals would be at the discretion of states to implement. National legislation on its own isn’t sufficient, warned Palestine. It creates different rules for different countries and it doesn’t offer adequate protection for civilians in armed conflict. This makes the creation of a legally binding instrument a matter of urgency—anything short of this might give impression that something has been achieved while failing to actually control AWS and leaving way free for those who want to use these weapons, said Palestine.

Legally binding instrument

This is why mid-way through the GGE session, the Group of 13 tabled a “roadmap” for establishing a new binding protocol on AWS. As Uruguay explained, this proposal urges the GGE to recognise the common ground reached by delegations, that these understandings be elaborated and codified in a report to high contracting parties of the CCW, and then recommends the negotiation of a new CCW protocol based on these elements. The Philippines pointed out that the GGE does have many common understandings already, but they could not be put on the record last year because some are opposed to progress. This is why agreeing to these commonalities is the first step of this roadmap.

While a handful of delegations reiterated their opposition to a legally binding instrument, the majority of GGE participants support this path. As Stop Killer Robots noted, “Through a combination of individual and joint statements, 70 parties to the CCW have stated their ambition to negotiate a legally binding instrument with a combination of both prohibitions and regulations to ensure meaningful human control over the use of force.”

Some governments suggested that the proposals could build on one another. Spain, for example, reportedly suggested that elements from the US-led proposal could be incorporated into the G13’s proposal for a protocol. This could accord with the “two-track approach” that gained significant support last year, in which some AWS are prohibited, and others restricted and regulated.

Sign posts

On the final afternoon of the GGE, Switzerland delivered a joint statement on behalf of Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Switzerland, and Uruguay. These countries called on the GGE to incorporate a number of “sign posts” into its work, including inter alia the acknowledgement of the centrality of the human element in the use of force; the need to intensify multilateral efforts on AWS, including through the development of effective and multilaterally agreed rules, limits, and prohibitions; and that for the CCW “to remain a viable forum to address the challenges posed by LAWS its deliberations must result in a substantive outcome commensurate with the urgency of the issue, and contribute meaningfully to the normative and operational framework governing autonomous weapons systems through their entire lifecycle.”

The need for a new forum

While it was positive that the GGE was able to salvage three days despite the Russian government’s best efforts to prevent any substantive work from occurring, the fact that this work occurred in an informal mode without webcast, and the fact that the disruptions of one delegation were once again able to derail substantial progress, speak volumes about the urgent need to move the consideration of AWS to a new forum.

The United Nations is supposed to be a venue for multilateralism and diplomacy. Yet time and again in disarmament forums, consensus is interpreted as unanimity, allowing the most heavily militarised states to block work on issues they perceive as potentially constraining their ability to kill. Russia—along with the United States, Israel, and others engaged in wars and occupations—are currently developing AWS technologies. They benefit from a stalemate at the CCW. Even while some of these states actively contributed this week to discussions, in the past they have been among those blocking outcome documents and agreements that could lead to meaningful progress.

Once again, it is clear we need a forum that allows for true democracy. When states and organisations were blocked from taking action to save lives in the past, they created new channels for action. They negotiated the bans on cluster munitions and landmines through independent processes, and the ban on nuclear weapons through the UN General Assembly.

It’s time to establish a process for negotiating a legally binding treaty prohibiting and restricting AWS outside of the CCW, in a forum that does not operate by consensus but by democracy and multilateralism. As Stop Killer Robots said, “We need to operate in a forum that is transparent and inclusive and where progress cannot be held up by an intransigent minority of states.” The deadlock witnessed in this latest GGE, “in which 20 per cent of the allocated time for discussions this year was taken up deciding whether or not to adopt agenda item 1, and which culminated in the cutting of the live feed, is a damning indictment of the prospects of this forum to achieve the solutions the world urgently needs.”

The imperative of human emotion

With the backdrop of the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine—not to mention other GGE participants’ wars, occupations, and arms exports—this urgency cannot be understated.

During the two days of procedural wrangling, the French delegation at one point spoke frankly about the ongoing violence. The ambassador highlighted the horrific experience of civilians in Ukraine, including the bombing and shelling of cities, refugees fleeing, children being killed. Yet he also repeatedly said he was not “being emotional”. He said he was speaking “clinically, coldly, without anger;” he later said that the Russian delegates will say I am getting emotional and losing my cool, but there is “nothing emotional in my comments.”

This fear of emotion is striking. It is not unexpected, given past statements from the French government in other forums in which it accused those of those wanting to talk about the humanitarian imapcts of nuclear weapons or pursue a ban on nuclear weapons as “being emotional”. Caring about human life, about people suffering from war, about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons—this is written off by violent actors as silly, unserious, of having no place in discourse about international security. It’s another trick of patriarchy, to ridicule those who feel empathy. To make fun of or dismiss the arguments of those who are impacted by the suffering of others.

Emotion should have a place in international discussions about weapon systems that will kill human beings without meaningful human control. This is one of the overarching problems with AWS—the inability of machines to feel or understand emotion, empathy, morality, ethics, care; to understand the value of human life or the importance of human dignity. Stripping away the human and letting weapons make decisions about who to kill or what to attack must be seen as even more absurd as we watch the death and destruction of multiple conflicts unfold.

Dismissing emotion is to dismiss valid concerns the majority of state and non-state actors have about AWS. To be “clinical and cold,” as the French ambassador tried to convey in his remarks, is to reinforce the misguided conception that that is the best way to save life. But it is not. The arguments that a robot will make better decisions in the battlefield than human beings is based on the idea that war should be clinical and cold and so should our reactions to it. But there is nothing clinical about any of this. It is horror.

We will not weaponise our way out of this horror. New kinds of weapons will not prevent war, or make it more humane, or lead to “decisive victory”. More weapons will just mean more death, more violence, more crimes against humanity, more arms races, more wasted money, more war profiteering. Autonomous weapons will not solve the problem of war, they will make it worse. The time to prohibit them is now, before they have that chance.

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