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Statement on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems and Incendiary Weapons, CCW Annual Meeting

Delivered by Steve Goose, Director

Thank you Chairperson.

Human Rights Watch’s priorities for the CCW are urgent action on lethal autonomous weapons systems and urgent action on incendiary weapons. It is important for States Parties to make decisions on these two issues now that will allow States Parties to have meaningful success at the Review Conference at the end of next year.  Having such success will require more than maintaining the status quo.

 Lethal autonomous weapons systems are better known outside of the CCW as fully autonomous weapons, or killer robots.  Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch is the global coordinator of the campaign.

We believe that the only viable solution to the multitude of dangers posed by these weapons is a preemptive prohibition on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Partial regulations or restrictions will not work. Existing international humanitarian law (IHL) will not be sufficient.  Legal weapons reviews alone will have no real impact.

We have articulated our reasons for reaching these assessments many times, and would welcome the opportunity to do so again, but will not at this moment due to the time constraints.

CCW States Parties are to be commended for taking up the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems so quickly and recognizing that this needs to be a high priority for the CCW. The discussions in 2014 and earlier this year have advanced the debate greatly, and helped establish a common base of knowledge.

The focus on the concept of meaningful human control has been encouraging, and especially the fact that the vast majority of States Parties that have spoken on lethal autonomous weapons systems have stressed that there must always be meaningful human control over targeting and kill decisions.  In our view, a requirement for meaningful human control is identical to a preemptive prohibition on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Mr. Chairperson, Human Rights Watch has prepared a memorandum to CCW delegates examining Protocol IV on blinding lasers as a precedent for a new Protocol VI on lethal autonomous weapons systems. The memorandum demonstrates that a preemptive prohibition is both possible and desirable. Many of the motivations and rationales for concluding the ban on blinding lasers apply equally to a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems..

The biggest development since the CCW met in April is that more than 3,000 artificial intelligence experts and roboticists have endorsed our call for a preemptive prohibition. The true technical experts have spoken and their message is:  these weapons should never come into existence. They cite a range of concerns, including the impact of the inevitable proliferation of the weapons, which they say would become cheap and easy to acquire, and could be the Kalashnikov rifle of the future. They also stressed the urgency of banning the weapons which they said could become a reality in years, not decades.  Years, not decades.

With that in mind, it is time for the CCW to step-up its work on lethal autonomous weapons systems, to show that it is serious, that it has a sense of urgency, that it is aimed at a concrete outcome, not just more talk.

It is time to move from informal to formal status, and to establish an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), one that is inclusive and open to all.  Much more time needs to be allocated than just one week.  CCW history shows that little gets done at the rate of one week per year.

It is not clear why some states do not want to move to formal work and a GGE. They have not articulated their reasons beyond vague statements that it would be premature. We are concerned this could indicate uncertainties on their part about the value of work on this issue, or a reluctance to address lethal autonomous weapons systems in a concrete fashion. Or worse, that some States Parties want to drag out discussions on the matter for year after year after year, as has happened with other issues in the CCW.

Our view is that there should be GGE discussions in 2016, and those discussions should be aimed at facilitating a decision at the Review Conference in December 2016 to begin formal negotiations, negotiations that should be completed within one or two years, and result in a preemptive prohibition on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Mr. Chairperson, turning to incendiary weapons, Human Rights Watch will have more to say on this tomorrow under Agenda item #12 on implementation of and compliance with the Convention and its protocols.  We appreciate that a good number of states have already addressed this issue today, and we hope others will do so tomorrow.

 Human Rights Watch has also produced a memorandum for CCW delegates on incendiary weapons, looking at developments over the past five years.  Regrettably, use has continued, most notably in Syria, but also Ukraine, and likely in Libya and Yemen.

However, over the last five years, there has been a growing number of CCW States Parties expressing concern about ongoing use, and, as we have heard today, a significant number are calling for expanded CCW discussions on incendiary weapons and the strengthening of Protocol III on incendiary weapons.

Indeed, Protocol III is seriously flawed and the Review Conference offers the perfect opportunity to fix it.

To lay the groundwork for that, States Parties should this week: condemn the ongoing use of incendiary weapons; set aside time in 2016 to discuss the implementation and adequacy of Protocol III; and, commit to strengthen Protocol III, including by:

(1) adopting an effects-based definition of incendiary weapons that would make it clear that the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon is prohibited, and (2) prohibiting, at a minimum, the use of all incendiary weapons in civilian areas, and not just the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons as is now the case. 

A comprehensive ban on all use would have the greatest humanitarian impact.

Mr. Chairperson, CCW States Parties could and should negotiate on lethal autonomous weapons and incendiary weapons at the same time following the Review Conference, just as they did landmines and blinding lasers in the 1990s, and explosive remnants of war (ERW) and mines other than antipersonnel mines (MOTAPM) more recently.  That is how the CCW can be the vibrant and impactful body that we all desire it to be.

Thank you.

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