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The International Discussion Continues: 2016 CCW Experts Meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons

Last week, States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the international treaty banning or restricting the use of land mines, blinding lasers, and other weapons, convened the third informal meeting of experts in Geneva to discuss lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS). We both attended and wanted to provide an overview of the discussions. Interestingly, if not oddly, enough, the 2016 meetings are arguably most aptly summed up by reference to Sarah Knuckey’s 2014 recounting of the first such experts meeting, in which she identified “four key forward-looking issues” that remain just as relevant now as then: definitions, human control, accountability, and weapons review. That those issues remain both key and forward-looking some two years later is telling of the state of the discussion about LAWS and the CCW, though of what, exactly, depends on one’s perspective.

Ultimately, last week’s meetings ended with a non-binding recommendation that the States Parties to the CCW formally establish an open ended group of governmental experts (GGE) at the upcoming CCW Review Conference, to be held in December, 2016. Assuming the Review Conference accepts the recommendation, the GGE would meet in 2017 and 2018 to “explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of LAWS.”

In the meantime, the debate around LAWS will continue to wrestle with the four key issues that have been on the table since at least 2014 if not earlier. Here’s a breakdown of where things stand on each coming out of last week’s meeting. 

Definitions

The issue of defining autonomy generated the largest amount of discussion during the expert meetings. The debate centered not on how to define autonomy, but rather whether the term should be defined at all. A number of States Parties argued that the term should be if not defined than clarified for the purposes of discussion in the context of the CCW. Others, including a number of civil society organizations, argued against a definition, at least at this point, believing the act of seeking consensus on a definition would further bog down the process.

Human Control

As with previous experts meetings, there was significant discussion regarding the need for, and nature and breadth of, human control over autonomous weapons systems. A number of States Parties expressed the belief that some level of human control over autonomous weapons systems is critical to ensuring their lawfulness. But there was no agreement as to the amount or quality of human control necessary to ensure lawfulness. The United States continues to use the phrase “appropriate human judgment”, which was originally used in Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, Autonomy in Weapons Systems. The United Kingdom’s representatives put forth a novel concept of control they termed “intelligent partnership” which envisions a human/computer relationship were the human is central and supported by autonomous systems. The majority of States Parties embraced the undefined term “meaningful human control,” though ultimately the recommendation uses the term “appropriate human involvement with regard to lethal force.”

Accountability

The meetings discussed accountability in the context of individual and both command and State responsibility. A number of States Parties expressed the importance of establishing a clear accountability framework for the use of autonomous weapons (Australia, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States). Most States Parties, and many experts, referred to the need to establish an “accountability chain.” In most circumstances, States Parties simply referred to “accountability” without further explanation.

Weapons Reviews

With the exception of China and India, the States Parties that addressed weapons reviews endorsed the idea that the review process was critical in ensuring the lawful use of autonomous weapons. This included Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.  A number of States Parties provided explanations or updates of their weapons review process, including Belgium, Germany, Israel, Sweden, the UK and the US.  By contrast, China questioned whether domestic review programs were sufficient to ensure such weapons are permissible under international law, while India another questioned the benefit of the weapons review at all.

Questions for the LAWS Road Ahead

1) Keeping the the L in LAWS?

The LAWS discussion reached CCW via the United Nations Human Rights Council. For some, the autonomous weapons discussion should be broader than military weapons and armed conflict and include less than lethal systems and domestic police forces. It will be interesting to see if the Human Rights Council resumes consideration of this issue, and if so, how the systems are referred to and defined, with one possibility being to drop the L for lethal in LAWS, leaving AWS or autonomous weapon systems.

2) Formally discussing to discuss or to negotiate?

There is an inference that flows from the scope of the discussions – broad discussions are appropriate if the purpose is learning and developing a shared understanding, narrow discussions are appropriate if the purpose is specific regulation. The CCW LAWS discussions have been exceedingly broad and, thus far, informal. The conversation will likely soon transition to formal with GGE meetings on LAWS in 2017 and 2018 conducted under a mandate to explore possible recommendations on options. Those options theoretically run the gamut, from further discussions to negotiating an instrument to regulate or ban weapons systems and everything in between.  But it would appear that the GGE discussions will also be very broad in nature, indeed a Russian representative stated last week in the concluding plenary session that if the GGE were to do or become more than a discussion venue that Russia may withdraw from the consensus. Additionally, the LAWS discussion seems to focus on prospective systems, and what is prospective now, in 2016, may well mean something quite different in 2018 given the pace of increasing autonomy in weapons systems.

The collected statements and expert interventions from the 2016 CCW LAWS Experts Meeting may be found here.

The views expressed in this post are submitted in co-author Chris Ford’s personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Navy War College, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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About the Authors

is an assistant professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law. He previously served in the United States Army for over twenty years, including as the Chief of the Army’s International Law Branch in the Pentagon. Follow him on Twitter (@ChrisJenks_SMU).

is a Lt. Col. in the US Army and is a military professor at the US Naval War College's Stockton Center for International Law.