Governments Conclude First (Ever) Debate on Autonomous Weapons: What Happened and What’s Next

This week at the United Nations in Geneva, the 117 states parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) held the first inter-governmental debate on autonomous weapons. The “CCW Informal Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems,” together with civil society side events organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, addressed the legal, ethical, and military issues raised by autonomy.

The discussions were wide-ranging, and there were differences of opinion about what is denoted by “autonomous weapon system” or “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” as well as about the possible benefits or risks of such weapons, and whether to pursue the development of increasing autonomy or to seek a moratorium or ban.

Four key forward-looking issues to come out of this past week of debate: 

  1. Autonomous weapons are now firmly on the international agenda.  There was extremely broad agreement among states that they should continue to discuss the legal, ethical, strategic, political, and military issues raised by the development, acquisition, and deployment of increasingly autonomous weapons. The vast majority of states who made concluding comments at the Meeting of Experts explicitly supported continuing CCW discussions (e.g., Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom).  Most states demonstrated intense interest in the topic, describing the discussions in terms like “captivating” and “fascinating” (Sierra Leone), “lively” (Germany), “stimulating” (Austria), “engaging” (Ireland), “thought-provoking” and “important” (China).  In side meetings and events, many noted how unusually energized governments were, how thoughtful the conversations, and the influential role of civil society and academics in the debate.
  1. Need for broad ethical and political discussions. The conversation was far from limited to narrow technical or legal issues, and many states stressed the importance of ethical and political considerations being core to the debate (e.g., Brazil stressed the many ethical challenges; Switzerland stated that humanitarian and ethical dimensions must be at the “heart of debates,” and Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand made similar comments).  Human rights, humanity, and human dignity were frequently referenced.
  1. “Meaningful human control” as a central topic of future discussion and a potential guiding principle.  Numerous states expressed commitment to or interest in the concept of “meaningful human control” as a guiding principle in this area.  Importantly, Germany, in summing up the meeting, said there was an “emerging consensus” that there should be meaningful human control over targeting decisions.  Austria stated that weapons without meaningful human control are in contravention of international humanitarian law, and Croatia said that human control is a “fundamental part of international law.”  Switzerland described the notion as “quite encouraging” and said that there was “broad consensus” that no weapon should be deployed without “genuine control.”  A number of states said that what meaningful human control was, or should be, and how it could be applied would be an important topic for future discussions (e.g. Argentina, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Mali, Mexico, the Netherlands).  Three states pushed back on the principle in different ways: India (which said they were not accepting or rejecting the principle, but it needed more discussion), the United States (raised questions about whether the concept could usefully stand as the key guideline), and Pakistan (argued that the principle did not go far enough, and that states who supported the principle should also support a ban on autonomous weapons).
  1. The importance of Art 36 legal reviews, and need for discussion about how to review autonomy.  Many states (e.g. Australia, Germany, Mali, Switzerland, United States) affirmed the importance of carrying out legal reviews of new weapons to ensure their compliance with international humanitarian law.  Legal reviews are required by Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, Article 36, and generally also considered required as a matter of customary international law.  (Those looking for evidence of opinio juris that legal reviews are binding as a matter of customary law will want to look back at these meetings.)  There have long been concerns about the lack of transparency about which governments actually conduct such reviews, and their processes for doing so.  Various states suggested during the CCW meetings that a fruitful area of future work would be discussion about how to do legal reviews of autonomy, the sharing of good practices in this area, and/or attention to improved transparency (e.g. Germany, Ireland, Mali, the Netherlands, Switzerland, United States).

Collected statements of (some of the) experts, governments, and civil society are available here.  The notes above are based on the oral interventions of governments at the CCW.

The next meeting of the states parties to the CCW will be November 2014.  Given statements this week, it is likely that governments will agree then to continue discussions through the CCW into 2015. 

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).