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A pivotal year ahead

Originally published on the Forum on the Arms Trade’s Looking Ahead blog, Erin Hunt looks at opportunities and challenges ahead in 2017 for efforts to preemptively ban autonomous weapons systems.

2017 has the potential to be a pivotal year in efforts to ensure that all weapons have meaningful human control. For three years, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) has been discussing lethal autonomous weapons (future weapons that could select and fire upon a target without human control). In December 2016, the Review Conference of the CCW decided to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) chaired by Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India which will meet over 10 days in 2017 and then report-back to the CCW’s annual meeting on 22-24 November.

A GGE is a more formal level of meetings than the ones held in 2014, 2015 and 2016. States will be expected to bring their own experts and participate actively in discussions, instead of listening to presentations by outside experts and asking questions of those experts. The first meeting of the GGE will be held at the UN in Geneva on either 24-28 April or 21-25 August 2017. The date is dependent on when funds are available for the meeting. The second meeting of the GGE will be on 13-17 November, just before the annual CCW meeting.

In 2016, the number of states calling for a pre-emptive ban on fully autonomous weapons more than doubled.  At the time of writing, Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Holy See, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, State of Palestine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe have called for a ban while a number of other states seem to support new international humanitarian law of some sort to deal with autonomous weapons systems.

This GGE is a large step towards a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems but there are a number of challenges ahead in 2017.  First, the Russian Federation continues to object to more formal talks on autonomous weapon systems on the grounds that it is premature to move forward since there is not a clear understanding of the subject under discussion. That objection forgets that definitions are usually the last part of disarmament treaties to be negotiated. It was only at the very end of the 2016 CCW Review Conference that Russia agreed to not block the GGE.

Second, the majority of states, including my own, Canada, do not have national policies on autonomous weapons systems.  However, this challenge is also an opportunity. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will be working hard around the world in 2017 to support the development of national policies on autonomous weapons systems.  After three years of informal CCW experts meetings as well as discussions in the Human Rights Council, states have a large amount of information at their disposal to begin to craft national policies. States can also hold consultations on creating a national policy in advance of the GGE meetings.

Third, there is the possibility that the GGE may become distracted by the inclusion of a discussion item on best practices and greater transparency in Article 36 weapons reviews. These legal reviews are an obligation of states developing, purchasing or otherwise acquiring new weapons.

Although Article 36 weapons reviews should be a topic of discussion at the international level to strengthen both policy and practice around the world, better weapons reviews will not solve the problems associated with autonomous weapons systems and should not distract the GGE from the core of its work. Weapons reviews cannot answer moral, ethical, and political questions. An Article 36 review cannot tell us if it is acceptable to the public conscience for a machine to kill without meaningful human control. Autonomous weapons systems are often referred to as a revolution in warfare; and as such, moral, ethical and political considerations must not be pushed aside. These questions need to remain on the international agenda in 2017.

This year, we will witness significant work done at the national and international level to increase understanding of the challenges posed by autonomous weapons as well as the number of states calling for a pre-emptive ban. Stay tuned to see if the international community stands ready at year’s end to ensure that all weapons have meaningful human control.

UK Parliament Debates Fully Autonomous Weapons

Last month at the United Nations Human Rights Council, we were slightly concerned when the UK was the only state opposed to a moratorium or a ban on fully autonomous weapons.  After a parliamentary debate on June 17, 2013, we have a little more clarity.  In response to a speech by Nia Griffith, MP, the Minister for Counter Proliferation, Alistair Burt MP, agreed that fully autonomous weapons will not “be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law” and stressed that the UK does not have fully autonomous weapons and does not plan to acquire any.

Our colleagues at Article 36 have done a detailed analysis of the debate.  In light of the stronger language in this debate, there is some room to optimistic

It would seem straightforward to move from such a strong national position to a formalised national moratorium and a leading role within an international process to prohibit such weapons. The government did not provide any reason as to why a moratorium would be inappropriate, other than to speculate on the level of support amongst other countries for such a course of action.

Whilst significant issues still require more detailed elaboration, Article 36 believes this parliamentary debate has been very valuable in prompting reflection and Ministerial scrutiny of UK policy on fully autonomous weapons and narrowing down the areas on which further discussions should focus. It appears clear now that there will be scope for such discussions to take place with the UK and other states in the near future.

The UK parliamentary debate and Article 36’s analysis of it, coming so soon after the Human Rights Council debate and the widespread media coverage of the issue make it quite clear that it is time to have such a substantive and non-partisan debate in the Canadian House of Commons as the government works out its policy on this important issue.