Reflections on the 2016 CCW Review Conference

This is a guest post by Anna Khalfaoui. Anna is currently pursuing a LLM at Harvard Law School, having previously studied at Cambridge University and King’s College London. She specialises in public international law and international human rights law.

Reflections on the Review Conference as a newcomer to CCW

The Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was a great success for advocates of a ban on fully autonomous weapons. Held at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2016, the Conference was also an opportunity for me to discover and reflect on the processes and challenges of the CCW, to which I was a newcomer.  

I became involved when I attended the Conference as part of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC).  I also contributed to a report that IHRC co-published with Human Rights Watch the week before the Review Conference. Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban rebuts the major arguments against a prohibition on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons. These weapons, also known as killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons systems, would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention.

The Review Conference was a key step toward a ban because states parties agreed to formalise talks on killer robots by establishing a Group of Government Experts (GGE), which will meet for 10 days in 2017. This GGE creates the expectation of an outcome as past GGEs have led to negotiation of new or stronger CCW protocols. It provides a forum for states and experts to discuss the parameters of a possible protocol which hopefully will take the form of a ban. The Review Conference also showed that support a ban is gaining traction around the world. Argentina, Panama, Peru and Venezuela joined the call for the first time at the Conference, bringing to 19 the number of states in favour of a ban.

The establishment of a GGE was the news I eagerly waited for the entire week. When the Review Conference opened on December 12, this result did not seem guaranteed. Decisions under the CCW are adopted on the basis of the consensus. This means that any state can block progress and the Russian delegation, from the beginning of the week, forcefully opposed the move to set up a GGE. All other countries that addressed killer robots during the Review Conference explicitly supported establishing such a group. There was something strange about the risk of a single state blocking efforts openly promoted by numerous countries, and I wondered whether, faced with the threat of isolation, it would actually do so. Ultimately, this opposition appears to have been overcome by overwhelming support for more formal discussions.

I first heard about fully autonomous weapons when I joined IHRC in September. At the Review Conference, I realised how invested I had become in this issue and how relieved I was when, on Friday, it became clear that Russia was not going to block a GGE. Fully autonomous weapons are still only under development. Yet, because they have the potential to dramatically change the way that wars are fought, it is incumbent upon us to address the dangers they pose before they find their way to military arsenals and the battlefield.

Several other points caught my attention throughout the week.

Firstly, I joined the Review Conference as part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working towards a preemptive ban on these weapons. In this capacity, I found it interesting and encouraging to observe the role played by civil society at the Review Conference, including doing advocacy, releasing research publications and making statements during the sessions. In their public remarks, state representatives often explicitly acknowledged the work of specific NGOs and experts and the importance of civil society engagement in the dialogue. Many diplomats also attended side events, organised by the Campaign, such as one on the need to adopt a ban rather than a regulatory approach to deal with the dangers associated with killer robots. In the never-ending discussions about the correct balance to strike between military interests and humanitarian concerns, civil society has a vital role to play in emphasising the importance of humanitarian protection and pushing states to adopt ambitious goals. Civil society’s efforts are all the more important when it comes to killer robots which have the potential to revolutionise warfare and raise deep ethical questions.

Secondly, I was surprised and concerned by the limited media coverage of the Review Conference, especially given the fact that a Review Conference happens only once every five years and addresses matters of global concern. Discussions about killer robots should take into account the views of the public at large because delegating decisions about the use of lethal force to machines raises fundamental moral and ethical questions and international law prohibits weapons that run counter to the dictates of the public conscience.  Media coverage is important to raise the public’s awareness and facilitate its involvement in the debate. Civil society can contribute by engaging with the media and disseminating information about emerging weapons technologies that have the potential to affect societies and the world we live in. In so doing, civil society can promote media scrutiny and public participation and thereby put greater pressure on states to be ambitious and adopt encompassing solutions.

Finally, much of the debate at the Conference concentrated on the issue of finances. Financial constraints forced some discussions to take place in an informal setting without the use of official translators. Dozens of countries throughout the week noted their concerns at the financial difficulties facing the CCW. Given the fact that the Conference lasted only five days, it was regrettable that financial discussions took time away from the substantive issues. If this pattern continues, there is a risk that it will undermine the effectiveness and impact of the GGE in 2017 and the CCW as a whole. States parties should therefore take steps to resolve the situation by making their financial contributions as soon as possible.

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