Article 36 remarks to the CCW debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems 

13 November 2015

Delivered by Thomas Nash

Thank you Mr Chairperson,

Overall we feel it is clear from the debate this morning and yesterday that lethal autonomous weapons systems are a significant problem for the international community – that is why the treaty body tasked with restricting and prohibiting weapons systems is discussing them.

We are encouraged with the discussion on meaningful human control. We are a bit surprised though that some states are concerned this concept is somehow vague. Some of the statements that this is vague or narrow concept are also accompanied by statements that weapons will always be under human control. States should be able to explain how they ensure this human control over their weapons and what the right level of human control they require.

The annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in Geneva (Article 36)

The annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in Geneva (Article 36)

If states are to be able to assert with any credibility that there is human control over their weapons, they need to explain how. In our view this process of explaining the exercise of meaningful human control will help define the limits to acceptable and desirable autonomy in the critical functions of weapons systems. This in turn should help us to start sketching out the contours of an international instrument prohibiting lethal autonomous weapons systems, that is to say, weapons systems that operate beyond meaningful human control. This should be the focus of work for states next year and much more work is needed we believe, in this body and elsewhere.

Some have seemed to suggest that there is some legal answer somewhere out there for the acceptability of autonomous weapons – that somehow we will be able to test such potential systems against existing law and then decide whether to develop them. We think existing law can provide strong arguments against the development of autonomous weapons systems, but a purely legalistic approach risks casting the net a little too narrowly. So we would very much agree with those that suggest a wider set of concerns related to society, humanity and human dignity.

The CCW is a body traditionally focused on IHL. Like all law though, IHL was developed from a more basic and fundamental set of moral and ethical motivations. We need to be able to draw on those wider moral and ethical considerations as we deliberate on the possible development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. When one considers the history of the development of international law, it simply does not make sense to say that there is no rationale right now to develop new law on autonomous weapons. Do such states believe that we have reached some kind of idealised point of perfection in the development of international law? If we had reached such a point, why does the CCW exist as a forum dedicated to “the codification and progressive development of the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict?” Against that background, such assertions that no new law is needed appear rather more formulaic than thoughtful policy positions.

We think the question of legal reviews of weapons should be seen in the wider context of the development of weapons, means, methods of warfare, rather than simply as a question for autonomous weapons. There is much work to be done on national-level reviews of weapons. There is almost no parliamentary or public scrutiny over the development of weapons for example. Concerned civil society organisations for example are not involved in these processes.

Given that, as a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, we think lethal autonomous weapons systems should be prohibited, we are not at all confident in this approach, in particular given the lack of evidence that legal reviews have actually prevented the development of specific weapons systems. There is a danger, then, that those states promoting national-level legal reviews as the primary way forward to deal with autonomous weapons might actually make it more difficult to achieve progress on a multilateral agreement in relation to these weapons.

Mr Chairperson,

A number of states, including those with some of the most advanced military capabilities, have said that they do not intend to develop lethal autonomous weapons systems or that their weapons will always be under human control. We have heard no arguments why states could not move now to accept such a position as a multilateral commitment. We believe that if it were, this would lead to a prohibition of lethal autonomous weapons systems, that is to say, weapons systems that operate beyond meaningful human control.

Thank you Mr Chairperson.


Statement by Article 36 to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

Geneva, 12 November 2015

Delivered by Thomas Nash

Thank you Mr Chairperson,

We are encouraged that states look set to continue and hopefully intensify and focus their work to address the concerns related to autonomous weapons. Although such systems are sometimes portrayed as a distant prospect, this topic should instead be an urgent priority for humanity. The increasing use of armed drones, for example, is already facilitating a seemingly limitless expansion of the area of military operations. The concerns about armed drone strikes, in particular human rights considerations, are clearly distinct from the concerns being discussed here in the CCW about autonomous weapons. At the same time, the developments in armed drone technology – with sophisticated sensors and software, including automatic target recognition – presage the further drive towards ever greater autonomy and towards lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in Geneva (Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

The annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the UN in Geneva (Campaign to Stop Killer Robots)

The development of such systems would directly conflict with the most basic principles of humanity and human dignity. In this regard we are pleased that the concept of meaningful human control has acquired widespread currency within the international debate on autonomous weapons. There is a general recognition that such control is required for an attack. In our view, this general recognition should be explicitly articulated in international law.

We are confident that a thoughtful and proper consideration of this concept will lead responsible states to the prohibition of systems operating beyond meaningful human control. Along with other members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, we believe that a focused set of discussions is required on lethal autonomous weapons systems and a Group of Governmental Experts would be one useful forum for this in 2016. States should make progress next year with a view to agreeing a meaningful outcome at the CCW’s Fifth Review Conference. Given the human rights dimension to the autonomous weapons question, states should also continue their discussions on this topic at the Human Rights Council.

Mr Chairperson,

We do not believe, as some have perhaps suggested, that the legal review of weapons under additional protocol I of the Geneva Conventions is an appropriate or sufficient response to the concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems. Where existing international law does not provide clear delineation of what level of human control is necessary within weapons systems, there is therefore no shared basis by which national-level reviews would approach this most critical question. This is all the more so in a context where transparency over the development of weapons technology is sorely lacking.

We do think, however, that weapon review processes could be strengthened internationally – including through ongoing review of weapons, by which evidence of weapons’ impact in practice should continue to inform any assessment of their acceptability. A more effective review of new weapons, means and methods of warfare – undertaken for the purpose of minimising humanitarian suffering – could significantly enhance civilian protection in the future.

However, whilst it is important to consider how we respond to new developments, we must also pay attention to the weapons that are killing civilians now.

Mr Chairperson,

The city of Sa'ada has been heavily hit by airstrikes during the conflict in Yemen in 2015 (© Philippe Krops/OCHA)

The city of Sa’ada has been heavily hit by airstrikes during the conflict in Yemen in 2015 (© Philippe Krops/OCHA)

As we meet here in Geneva, civilians are struggling in places like Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen with bombing and shelling in their towns and cities. Many have lost their lives or their limbs and many more have been bombed out of their homes, fleeing abroad for their survival. As the northern winter approaches, many of these people will face increasingly desperate conditions. We are encouraged that, in the face of this suffering, states are embarking on a process to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We welcome the recent meeting held in Vienna in September by states and organisations that have recognised this grave humanitarian challenge. As part of the International Network on Explosive Weapons we will be ready to support the work of those states towards a political declaration that will respond to this clear pattern of harm and enhance the protection of civilians from these practices.

In the context of the CCW, we agree with Human Rights Watch that states should reconsider the existing rules on incendiary weapons. When a weapon causes burn wounds that can spontaneously ignite as doctors remove the bandages to treat a patient, it is hard to argue that this is not excessively injurious. The wide area effects of incendiary weapons are also likely to make attacks indiscriminate, whether delivered by ground or air. In our view these two characteristics make incendiary weapons unacceptable. They should be prohibited.

Mr Chairperson,

The social and political conversation about the development, use and impact of weapons is a fundamentally difficult one. However, the way in which states engage with each other on these questions, the way in which states recognise and seek to address the problems posed by weapons, is an important measure of our collective humanity. With this in mind, we would strongly encourage states to aim high in their endeavours here.

Thank you Mr. Chairperson.

Read more

Download our 12 November statement as a PDF

Download our 13 November statement as a PDF

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

International Network on Explosive Weapons


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