Major New Step Forward For International Debate on Autonomous Weapons Systems

Today, the 117 state parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed to hold the first ever intergovernmental meeting on autonomous weapons systems.  The governments – including Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia – agreed to the following text:

18. The Meeting welcomed the proposal to explore the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

. . .

32. The Meeting decided that the Chairperson will convene in 2014 a four-day informal Meeting of Experts, from 13 to 16 May 2014, to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems, in the context of the objectives and purposes of the Convention. He will, under his own responsibility, submit a report to the 2014 Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention, objectively reflecting the discussions held.

The decision today is in large part due to the efforts – over the last four years, and intensified in the last seven months – of roboticists and other scientists, UN Special Rapporteurs, and international civil society, all pushing governments to debate autonomous weapons at the international level.  The decision follows a range of international non-governmental efforts, including: the founding in 2009 of ICRAC (a group of scientists and others created to advocate for an international debate on autonomous weapons); reports on autonomous weapons by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in 2010 (met largely with silence from governments) and 2013 (met with significant government and media interest); public statements of concern by the ICRC in 2011; the release of a major report by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic in 2012; the launch in 2013 of a global civil society campaign to seek a ban on fully autonomous systems; and a major call in 2013 by scientists from 37 countries for a legal ban on autonomous weapons.  Through 2013, France has been one of the leading countries taking up the calls for debate and promoting efforts towards intergovernmental dialogue.

The meeting agreed to today, to take place in May 2014, is an intergovernmental meeting to discuss autonomous weapons and is not itself specifically directed towards international legal regulation.  The 2014 meeting could, however, be a first step towards legal regulation through the CCW.  The CCW is a framework convention that provides a forum for the assessment and debate of weapons, and is a mechanism for the introduction of new additional protocols to regulate weapons.  The CCW process has successfully been used to create five additional protocols, including a preemptive ban in 1995 on blinding laser weapons.  The CCW was, however, abandoned – largely because of slowness and failures to secure consensus – in the case of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, which instead were regulated following the separate Oslo and Ottawa processes.  The recent past inadequacies of the CCW provide reason to be cautious about the possibility of legal regulation in the autonomous systems context.  Indeed, similar arguments made during the earlier processes, including that existing international humanitarian law was sufficient to regulate any current or new weapons, are also now being made with respect to autonomous systems.

Public statements by governments this year reveal a range of views about what kind of international legal or policy response, if any, to autonomous systems might be necessary, appropriate, or politically feasible.  There is also a lack of clarity about precisely what is meant by “autonomous weapons systems.”  But the agreement today signals the increasing interest of many states in the potential technical, political, operational, and legal issues raised by autonomous systems, and their acknowledgment that these issues should be studied and debated before the weapons are (if ever) deployed.

For an outline of the range of views for and against autonomous weapons, see my prior Just Security post, and for key readings representing the spectrum of views of autonomous weapons, see our Just Security reading list.

Note: Sarah Knuckey was a Senior Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions at time of the 2010 UN report on AWS.  She also provides independent legal advice on an ad hoc basis to the scientists’ organization (ICRAC). 


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).