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August 27, 2018
Meeting Set to Discuss Autonomous Arms

Daniel Horner

Countries meeting in Geneva last month agreed to start discussions on a class of weapons that can use lethal force without human intervention.

At a Nov. 15 session of the annual meeting of parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), countries decided to hold an “informal” meeting of experts next May 13-16 “to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems,” according to the official document summarizing the results of the session. The May discussions are to be “in the context of the objectives and purposes” of the CCW, which bans or restricts the use of certain types of conventional weapons.

The Nov. 15 decision represents the first international attempt to grapple with what observers and participants say are the complex and, in some cases, unique issues raised by these weapons systems, dubbed by their critics as “killer robots.”

Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel, the French ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva who chaired the CCW meeting, said in a Nov. 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today that one of the reasons the topic is complex is that the technologies in question are still under development. The May meeting is intended to be “a first step toward building a common understanding of the questions raised” by the topic, he said, adding that “[i]t is too early to say” what the final result of the process will be.

The issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems has drawn increased attention in the past year or so. In November 2012, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School produced a report calling for a “preemptive prohibition on [the] development and use” of such systems. In an April report, Christof Heyns, special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, recommended a number of steps including the establishment of “an international body…to monitor the situation [with regard to autonomous weapons] and articulate the options for the longer term.”

Simon-Michel is to chair the May meeting and prepare a report “objectively reflecting the discussions held” for next year’s annual meeting of the CCW. In the Nov. 25 e-mail, he said that with the report in hand, the CCW parties, “on the basis of the discussions and exchange of views, will be in a position to take an informed decision in November 2014 on how to further elaborate on this topic.”

Under the mandate, the chairman of the May meeting is to submit the report “under his own responsibility,” which means the meeting participants do not need to agree to approve it.

In a Nov. 15 statement, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations, hailed the CCW parties’ decision earlier that day as “historic.” Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, the campaign’s global coordinator, said it was noteworthy that there had been so little opposition to the idea of the May meeting.

“Nobody’s calling for the status quo,” she said in a Nov. 20 interview.