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All countries have a duty to save humanity by retaining meaningful human control over the use of force and banning fully autonomous weapons.  © 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Geneva, December 20, 2021) – Major military powers are preventing efforts by a majority of countries to prohibit autonomous weapons systems through a new international treaty, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 17, 2021, governments at the United Nations Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) were unable to agree to begin negotiations on new rules for “killer robots,” weapons that select and engage targets without meaningful human control.

“The lack of a substantive outcome at the UN review conference is a wholly inadequate response to the concerns raised by killer robots,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of the current diplomatic talks to recommend a path forward on killer robots shows that countries need to pursue a different avenue to prohibit these weapons systems. The world can’t wait.”

Momentum to create new law is gathering steam with the support of a broad range and growing number of governments and political leaders, institutions, private companies, scientists, and artificial intelligence experts.

Russia, the United States, India, and Israel were primarily responsible for preventing a majority of countries at the Review Conference from agreeing to open negotiations on legally binding rules on autonomous weapons systems, Human Rights Watch said. Because the Convention on Conventional Weapons operates by consensus, these four countries and a handful of others that are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies prevented agreement on regulatory proposals.

Most countries at the conference expressed frustration and dissatisfaction that a mandate to negotiate new international law was not possible despite widespread support for that goal. Countries at the conference have spent the past eight years considering fundamental legal, operational, and technical concerns raised by the introduction of autonomy in weapons systems.

Instead, the conference adopted a vague mandate to “consider proposals and elaborate … possible measures” on lethal autonomous weapons systems over the course of just 10 days in 2022, finances permitting. The final text falls far short of the robust mandate needed to negotiate a legally binding instrument.

A new international treaty on autonomous weapons systems could be adopted through an independent process, as was used for the treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.

During the meeting, Human Rights Watch criticized proposals for voluntary measures that do not constitute new law because they would pave the way for the widespread development and use of autonomous weapons systems.

A proposal from the United States for states parties to the treaty to spend the next two years considering a “code of conduct” to guide development and use of autonomous weapons systems received little support.

Portugal suggested that countries should compile a “compendium” of how existing international humanitarian law applies to autonomy in weapons systems. Others responded that stock-taking is not an appropriate exercise given the urgency and scale of the autonomous weapons challenge, as well as rising public expectations that countries will take bold action.

A total of 40 countries have called for new international law to ban and restrict autonomous weapons systems, a goal that many firmly reiterated at the conference: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (on use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Sierra Leone, Spain, the State of Palestine, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Dozens more countries have endorsed this goal through statements issued by regional groups and the Non-Aligned Movement.

During the review conference: 

  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that countries should agree on “an ambitious plan” to swiftly advance work to prohibit autonomous weapons that can choose targets and kill people without human interference; 
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross president, Peter Maurer, said that countries should prohibit autonomous weapon systems that pose unacceptable risks – unpredictable autonomous weapons and those used to target people directly – while strictly regulating all others to ensure sufficient human control; and 
  • The CCW president, Ambassador Yann Hwang of France, received a Stop Killer Robots petition signed by more than 17,000 people, which urges countries to open negotiations for new international law on autonomous weapon systems. 

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the coalition of more than 185 nongovernmental organizations in 67 countries that advocates for a treaty to prohibit autonomous weapons systems and maintain meaningful human control over the use of force.

“No one wants to live in a world where machines are used to target human beings on the basis of sensors and software,” Goose said. “Public revulsion over digital dehumanization and the proliferation of autonomous weapons systems will ultimately drive forward an international treaty to avoid ceding meaningful human control over the use of force.”

The Review Conference also addressed the issue of Protocol III on incendiary weapons, which has been criticized for its inability to prevent the grave harm caused by these exceptionally cruel weapons. About 20 countries said that the treaty should set aside time to assess the status of Protocol III, and Ireland put forward a proposal for informal consultations. These countries said that the immediate and long-term suffering caused by incendiary weapons and the divergence of opinions among states parties necessitated in-depth discussions of the protocol.

Ultimately the proposal failed due to opposition from Russia and Cuba, although the conference did agree to condemn any use of incendiary weapons against civilians.

“The veto of efforts to address incendiary weapons by two states further shows the CCW’s inability to tackle humanitarian concerns, let alone ensure the effectiveness of its existing protocols,” Goose said.

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