Start of first inter-governmental expert meeting on autonomous weapons

Today, the 117 states parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) held their first expert meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems – weapons that can select and engage a target without human intervention.  The expert meeting will take place all week, until Friday, May 16.  (For background about how this came about, see my prior post here, and for my summary of the kinds of legal, strategic, and ethical arguments made about autonomous weapons see here).

In this post, I summarize some of the issues raised by states during their opening remarks and subsequent comments at the CCW:

  • Strong government interest in discussing autonomous weapons. There was significant interest among states in sharing views and learning from experts about autonomous weapons systems. As the Netherlands said: “never before has a disarmament issue gained interest so quickly.”  About 30 states made opening statements on the first day, all of them strongly welcoming the start of inter-governmental discussions.  Many states committed to take an active role in the CCW discussions (e.g. Australia, Czech Republic, India, Italy, Mali, Switzerland, United States). No state said that now was not the right time, or that the CCW was the wrong forum, to discuss autonomous weapons.  (Some states also said that autonomy could be considered additionally in other forums, such as the Human Rights Council).  During the first day’s expert panels on technical issues (the speakers were Raja Chatila, Paul Scharre, Ron Arkin, Noel Sharkey), states were also very active in asking questions.
  • Deliberation before deployment.  Numerous states noted the importance of discussing autonomous systems before any potential deployment (e.g. Czech Republic, Italy [stating that we can’t predict the impact of autonomous weapons on international law, but that “early assessment of possible impact is of paramount importance”], South Africa [noting that it is “only a matter of time” before AWS are on the battlefield].
  • State positions on a ban and “human control” over lethal decisions. Three states explicitly called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons: Ecuador, Egypt, and Pakistan.  The kinds of reasons put forward included that autonomous weapons will not be able to comply with the rules for the use of force under international law, will lower the threshold for doing to war, create an accountability vacuum, and will undermine international peace.  A number of other states did not directly support a new legal ban, but did advocate for a principle of human control or “meaningful human control/involvement” over decisions to take life (e.g. Germany [stating that the “principle of human control is inherent in international humanitarian law”], the Holy See, Ireland [supporting the ICRC’s promotion of the concept of human control]).  Spain explicitly opposed a ban or moratorium at this stage, without further discussion of definitions. Canada stated that existing international humanitarian law seemed now to be sufficient to regulate autonomous systems.  Most governments did not state an explicit position, but noted the complexity of the issues, concerns raised by autonomy, and the importance of discussions.  Some states noted that it was too early to say yet where the discussions might go (e.g. Italy, United States).
  • Autonomy will revolutionize warfare. Some states noted the significant extent to which autonomous weapons could radically change the nature of warfare (e.g. Austria, the Holy See, Pakistan).
  • Role of civil society and academics. Many states noted the key role that civil society and academics have played in the debates thus far and in getting the issue on the international agenda (e.g. Australia, Austria, Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands, Mexico, Switzerland).  Many governments also sent representatives to the civil society side event on legal issues raised by autonomous weapons (which I moderated, and on which Bonnie Docherty of HRW, Brian Wood of Amnesty, and Professor David Akerson spoke).
  • Unclear definitions? Many states noted a lack of clarity about the definition or attributes of autonomous weapons, and/or expressed a desire to come to greater agreement on definitions of autonomous weapons and the subject of analysis (e.g. Australia, Austria [stating that a desirable outcome of these meetings would be coming to agreed definitions], Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Russia).
  • Transparency. Austria explicitly highlighted the need for “increased transparency” by those states engaged in the development of autonomous weapons.

For readers interested in views from civil society, the leading non-governmental work is coming from Human Rights Watch (who just released a new report yesterday), Article 36, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (new report out last week), Nobel Women’s Initiative, PAX, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

About the Author(s)

Sarah Knuckey

Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Former Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2007-2016) Follow her on Twitter (@SarahKnuckey).