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Defending multilateralism in 2019


As we close out the decade, it is worth reflecting on how far the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has come. The killer robots challenge is now regarded by foreign ministers and other high-level politicians as an urgent “politically relevant” concern deserving immediate multilateral action. There is widespread recognition that weapons systems that would select and engage targets on the basis of sensor processing and that do not allow for meaningful human control will cross the threshold of acceptability and must be prohibited.

Yet while the serious threats that fully autonomous weapons pose to humanity are now widely acknowledged, diplomacy to deal with it move forward at a snail’s pace. The last Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting of the decade concluded on 15 November with a decision to continuing talking about killer robots, but little else.

This shows how multilateralism has come under serious strain since 2017. Geopolitics were on stark display at the last CCW meeting, as the US was mostly silent and Russia was mostly obstructive, including in its dedicated effort to exclude the Campaign from key sessions. China played both sides of the issue: reiterating its desire for a treaty while declining to admit its status as one of the nations most advanced in pursuing such weapons.

Sometimes things must fail for progress to be made. The failure of previous CCW efforts to respond to the human suffering caused by antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions resulted in external diplomatic processes that delivered life-saving treaties banning these weapons. The lack of agreement among nuclear weapons states to disarm led other countries to create the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons via the UN General Assembly.

Those treaties were the result of partnerships between like-minded countries, United Nations (UN) agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and dedicated coalitions of nongovernmental organizations. This is why the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is prioritizing political outreach in an effort to bring new countries, civil society groups, endorsers, and allies on board the call to ban killer robots.

Indeed, it’s clear that pressure is building to launch negotiations on a new treaty on fully autonomous weapons without delay. The number of countries calling for a ban on killer robots rose to 30 states in 2019, with the additions of Jordan and Namibia. There is now widespread agreement among more than 80 countries on the need to retain some form of human control over the use of force. Throughout the year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his disgust at “politically unacceptable and morally despicable” fully autonomous weapons and strong desire for a new international ban treaty.

Several political parties added pledges to ban killer robots to their policy platforms and election manifestos during 2019, but it is yet to be seen if the strong commitments on paper are adhered to by newly elected governments in Canada, Finland, and Germany. On 9 July 2019, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) parliamentary assembly adopted a declaration urging the 57 OSCE member states “to support international negotiations to ban lethal autonomous weapons.”

In September 2019, the Campaign’s global coordinator visited Japan and met with the foreign minister, Taro Kono, to urge the government to champion the goal of banning killer robots. Kono acknowledged the concerns and in turn urged the Campaign to step up public engagement to demonstrate this is an urgent national concern.

Over the past year, the Campaign has doubled its membership, moving to a total of 139 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 61 countries. We held a global meeting of campaigners in Berlin, Germany on 21-23 March, the coalition’s first international gathering of its members. Regional meetings of campaigners in Belgium, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Colombia during 2019 helped build greater awareness and solidarity on the goal of achieving a ban treaty. The Campaign’s regional leads undertook advocacy missions to regional bodies such as the African Union to build awareness and support for the goal of a new treaty to ban killer robots. During 2019, the Campaign provided more than US $250,000 in small grants to its members around the world, generating an array of activities, all aimed at demanding regulation now in the form of a new ban treaty.

Such engagement is paying off. A public opinion poll undertaken by data company YouGov across ten European countries in October found strong support for the goal of banning killer robots. More than seven in ten respondents favored their country working for an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Thirteen percent did not, while 14 percent said they were not sure or preferred not to answer.

The Campaign has started to systematically outreach to key constituencies, such as youth. Our members spoke to hundreds of scouts aged 14 to 17 years from 150 countries at the 24th World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia this year. A young scout from Colombia subsequently addressed the Campaign’s briefing at the UN in New York in October, alongside the UN disarmament chief.

During 2019, the killer robots concern became an economic one as effort to stigmatize removing human control from the use of force began to impact military acquisition and development. A major German industry association comprised of businesses and defense contractors including Rheinmetall called for the government to work for a new treaty to ban killer robots. This shows how defense planners are becoming reluctant to budget millions of dollars for autonomous weapons systems that might be prohibited before they are even built.

To drive greater technology sector support for the goal of banning fully autonomous weapons, the Campaign undertook a Silicon Valley Lead pilot project this year led by Marta Kosmyna, which attracted strong interest. This outreach and new reports by Campaign co-founder PAX have led to more tech companies and workers pledging not to develop killer robots. For example, Boston Dynamics owner Softbank said it will not develop killer robots as it does “not have a weapons business and have no intention to develop technologies that could be used for military purposes.”

The creation of a dedicated staff team has been one of the most significant changes for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots over the past year. The Campaign now has a three-person team comprised of Campaign Outreach Manager Isabelle Jones, Media and Communications Manager Clare Conboy and Project Officer Farah Bogani. The staff report to Campaign Coordinator Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch. They are bolstering the coalition’s media and communications, enabling recruitment and support of new members, allowing greater outreach to potential endorsers and allies, and ensuring the Campaign’s administrative, financial, and logistical operations function smoothly.

If enough multi-year funding commitments can be raised, the Campaign hopes to hire a Technology Sector Liaison staff position and recruit a Geneva-based Government Outreach Manager.

The period leading to the launch of negotiations of a humanitarian disarmament treaty is driven largely by civil society, which is why the Campaign requires financial support. To ensure the sustainability of the Campaign as it powers ahead towards its goal, please donate to and participate in our effort to prevent a future of fully autonomous weapons.


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