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Convention on Conventional Weapons runs out of road as states adopt meaningless report

The final meeting of this year’s discussions at the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on autonomous weapons systems (AWS), from 15-19th May 2023, ended without substantive progress. Once again, the outcome report is hollow on the content and fails to set a course for the safeguards against AWS that the world urgently needs. While the vast majority of States began discussions calling for an ambitious outcome, including concrete prohibitions and regulations on the development and use of AWS, all States eventually agreed to a position offered by the most regressive States in the room.

Ahead of the meeting, a draft report was circulated by the GGE Chair, Ambassador Damico of Brazil. The draft fell short of providing legal rules, but contained useful policy elements, including a characterisation of AWS, prohibitions centred on human control, and requirements for regulations on the development and use of AWS. A group of 52 States, delivered a joint statement giving support to the draft and additional States described the draft as a minimum, stating that a more ambitious framework is needed. 

However, once discussions began over the adoption of the final report, it was clear that the flow of discussions, and the content of the report would largely be determined by Russia and other States already investing in autonomous weapons technologies. Civil society and the International Committee of the Red Cross were barred from commenting on the report, and the European Union was interrupted several times by Russia and ultimately prevented from speaking. 

After the formal meeting ended at 6pm on Thursday, the Chair invited a select group of States to a lengthy informal meeting in which the content of the report was being determined. This informal mode of discussions continued throughout all of Friday. With no live-streaming, no recording and with civil society barred from participating, the discussions were effectively a private affair in which militarised States, already investing heavily in the development of autonomous weapons, were able to strip the initial draft report of any useful content. Consistent with previous meetings at the GGE, the Chair returned to formal mode at 5.50pm, 10 minutes before the end of the formal meeting time. 

With no time left for formal work, the meeting continued again in informal mode. Civil society and the ICRC attended the room, but again Russia requested our exclusion. Despite a wide range of States opposing our removal, and despite numerous precedents within CCW discussions in which Civil Society has been permitted to observe, the Chair ruled that we must depart, again allowing discussions to proceed in private. The meeting then continued until 1am, during which the final report was determined and adopted by States. 

The agreed report, which has still not been formally circulated as of Monday 12pm, is fundamentally lacking in meaningful content. After 10 years of discussions, the report fails to provide a working characterisation of AWS. The paragraph dealing with prohibitions ultimately states that AWS must not be used if they are incapable of being used lawfully – a meaningless tautology. While the report now recognises that control is needed, it fails to provide additional substance on what control requires, dismissing widespread demands for it to recognise the need for adequate understandability and predictability of systems, as well as for explainability, reliability and traceability. 

The paragraph on regulations arguably weakens what is already required by international law, by providing States with discretion as to whether or not any limits are required over the types of targets the system can engage, and whether the system should be limited in the duration, geographical scope and scale of operation. Overall, the report falls radically short of providing the legally binding framework the world urgently needs to safeguard against the serious risks posed by AWS. 

Artificial intelligence technologies are developing rapidly and there is palpable public concern about the role technology will play in society. While States are readily considering measures to protect against potential harms in civilian contexts, militaries are being afforded free rein to develop and use autonomous weapons systems absent clear legal rules. Despite 10 years of discussions at the UN, States have once again failed to respond to public concerns. 

Over 90 States from all regions of the world are now calling for negotiations of a legally binding instrument, a position supported by the UN Secretary General, the ICRC, thousands of experts in technology and artificial intelligence and civil society organisations around the world. At this GGE meeting, a group of 15 faith based organisations delivered a powerful statement that ‘digital dehumanisation is fundamentally repulsive to all people who share a belief in the inalienable dignity of the human person and the inestimable worth of human life’. Stop Killer Robots also delivered a statement urging States to stand up for peace, disarmament, rule of law, the protection of human rights through launching negotiations on a legally binding instrument on AWS.

A wide range of States have submitted written proposals for a legal framework, including prohibitions on systems that cannot be used with meaningful human control and on systems that target humans directly. In addition, detailed regulations for the development and use of such weapons have been proposed. A broad range of states have called for an ambitious approach, recognising the urgent need to prevent the dangers arising from the widespread proliferation of autonomous weapons systems. 

However, in accordance with the rules of procedure at UN discussions at the CCW, nothing is agreed unless it is agreed by all parties. It has been obvious for several years that a handful of highly militarised States have no intention of making progress towards a legally binding international framework. The same States continuously blocked text that attempted to characterise, or provide concrete prohibitions or regulations autonomous weapons systems. Despite efforts made by a range of states to raise the ambition of the group’s work, the CCW procedural rules have repeatedly denied efforts to make concrete progress. 

Stop Killer Robots wants to live in a world where the value of a human life is not reduced to numbers and subjected to force. We should be working to prevent the killing of people by machine. The continued failure to create new international standards and norms will have consequences for real people, unaware that their lives will be changed by the actions of the people involved in these discussions. This is a collective failure.  States that wish to make progress must now start using multilateral structures that are capable of moving forward, rather than enduring repeated defeat at the CCW.

We urge States around the world to use their power, to take responsibility and work together to negotiate a new international legal instrument to counter digital dehumanisation and ensure meaningful human control over the use of force. While the use of weapons systems with autonomous functionality are now being deployed in contemporary conflicts, the CCW forum continuously fails to deliver a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding instrument – the response the world urgently needs to stop killer robots. 

With the United Nations General Assembly returning in October 2023, States have an opportunity to take leadership in establishing meaningful progress towards a new legally binding instrument on AWS, that has been fundamentally lacking within outcomes at the CCW. Stop Killer Robots stands ready to support all States and stakeholders in this process. 

Ousman Noor

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