CCW Informal Meeting of Experts (c) UN in Geneva

CCW Informal Meeting of Experts (c) UN in Geneva

Autonomous weapons, meaningful human control and the CCW

Discussions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, May 2015

The CCW held its first informal meeting on autonomous weapons from 13-16 May in Geneva. Delegations from 87 countries took part, as well the UN, ICRC, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and a number of its member organisation, as well as independent experts and academics. Many delegations participated actively and, as noted by Charli Carpenter, engaged in genuine deliberation.

In its opening intervention on 13 May, Article 36 suggested that a useful focus for discussions would be on the need for meaningful human control over individual attacks. This approach, set out in an Article 36 briefing paper for the CCW, situates the debate around the question of actual human deliberation and control over weapons systems, which is relevant for all states, rather than on advanced future military technology, which may only be accessible to a limited number of states. Maya Brehm of Article 36 set out this approach during a lunchtime side event on technical matters on 14 May.

This concept of meaningful human control was a prominent feature of the debate with Austria, Croatia, Germany, Norway and Switzerland making strong statements about the requirement for human control over individual attacks.

UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Christof Heyns noted the importance of meaningful human control in his remarks during the meeting. Professor Noel Sharkey’s presentation during the meeting also referred to meaningful human control, drawing on his recent paper proposing a model for understanding the different levels of human supervisory control over autonomous weapons.

The chair’s draft report on the informal meeting, issued at the end of the meeting on Friday, contained the following reference to the term meaningful human control:

“Many interventions stressed that the notion of meaningful human control could be useful to address the question of autonomy. Other delegations also stated that this concept requires further study in the context of the CCW.”

As Sarah Knuckey noted, the discussions on ethics and morality were of significant value to the meeting and to the broader treatment of the subject of autonomous weapons in international affairs. A key concept here, emphasised by Professor Peter Asaro, is that we, as human society, have a set of shared values, including the principles of humanity, an understanding of human dignity and of the value of human life. This collective human morality forms the basis for all existing international humanitarian and human rights law and should be the basis for new law on autonomous weapons.

The legal scholars who were invited to present during the meeting all spoke about whether existing international law prohibits autonomous weapons already or whether such weapons could be used in compliance with international legal rules on distinction, proportionality and precaution. In an intervention during the legal session, Article 36 noted that the question of autonomous weapons goes beyond these existing rules:

“one way to consider the link between legality of autonomous weapons and meaningful human control is to consider that the principles of humanity – on which existing international humanitarian law and international human rights law are based – can be seen to require deliberative moral reasoning, by human beings, over individual attacks. Weapons that do not allow such human control and attacks without such human control should be prohibited. A new legal instrument seems necessary in order to make this explicit.”

Both Professor Asaro and Christof Heyns noted that the question of human dignity is essential in considering the implications of fully autonomous weapons. Taking a human life requires consideration of the life you are about to take. Professor Asaro noted that machines would not be able to understand the value of human life.

During a lunchtime side event on ethics and morality, Charli Carpenter of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and part of the Article 36 delegation for CCW, presented data on public perceptions of autonomous weapons in the US. The data, based on polling of 1,000 Americans, showed 55% opposed to autonomous weapons, with people linked to the military (active duty, veterans or their families) more strongly opposed than the general public. This sort of data is relevant to the question of the Martens clause of 1899, which was also discussed during the CCW and which requires states to take into account the “laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience” in situations not governed by other international law.

There was significant discussion of the relevance of legal reviews of new weapons, means and methods of warfare under article 36 of the 1977 additional protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. While useful, such reviews will not provide a comprehensive response to the question of fully autonomous weapons. Moreover, legal reviews would need to be based on an understanding of the requirement to ensure meaningful human control over such weapons systems, suggesting the need for a common understanding on this concept.

Beyond the question of autonomous weapons, this CCW expert meeting raised serious concerns about gender discrimination in global policymaking. Of the 17 experts invited to speak in 18 slots filling the expert panels during the official plenary on autonomous weapons, none were women. In response to this all-male expert selection, women involved in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots gathered to discuss ways to advance the participation and visibility of women in meetings on disarmament, peace and security. One suggestion from this group was that men should refuse to participate in all-male panels at meetings within this field.

As part of this effort, Article 36 is compiling a list of people working in the field of peace and security – particularly disarmament, arms control and the protection of civilians – who benefit from their male gender and have committed not to speak on panels that include only men.

The next steps will be a discussion on a mandate for further work on this matter in 2015. This decision will be taken in November at the annual meeting of the CCW, but initial indications seem to point in the direction of further work, perhaps more than one meeting throughout the year and perhaps with a greater degree of purpose towards a collective understanding of the issues at stake. As the conference came to a close, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urged government delegations to “develop their national policies on fully autonomous weapons” and expressed its desire to see multilateral discussions start towards creating an international legally-binding instrument.

This would be a necessary step to ensure meaningful human control over individual attacks and to prohibit systems and attacks without such control.

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