Autonomous weapons present a broad set of risks and challenges – from ethics and law to peace and security. They raise challenges around how we kill each other in conflict, as well as around how we will relate to new technologies in society more broadly. These issues demand a societal response, but to get to that we have to break the grip of the states that are both creating the problem and working against legal regulation.

States should use the 6th Review Conference of UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) taking place this week (13-17 Dec) in Geneva to continue to push for the start of negotiations on autonomous weapons. Building a clear collective voice in support of the negotiation of a legal instrument (the majority position) is more important than the actual outcome of the meeting, which is held hostage by a few highly militarised states – a dynamic familiar to those that have taken part in previous attempts to regulate or prohibit weapons systems.

Last week, the CCW’s Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on autonomous weapons was prevented from coming to any agreement on what they had considered by a handful of states. The discussions of the group in 2021 had seen a positive transformation from the past – with a shared conceptual orientation to the subject matter taking hold and, with it, a vision of what a regulatory instrument could look like.  Not surprisingly, the most militarised states (also investing most in the development of autonomous weapons technologies) don’t welcome this movement, and under the interpretation of consensus in this forum (anyone belligerent enough can veto) they were able to strip away all positive points of agreement until there was literally nothing left. Despite the best efforts of the Belgian Chair to move the conversation forward, the negative forces would agree to nothing.

This provides the immediate background to the 6th Review Conference. With the GGE having failed to set any way forward, it provides a chance for the Review Conference and the CCW President to step in and to save the work of the GGE by securing it a new ‘mandate’ in 2022. Such a mandate will likely enable the GGE to continue its conversation, whilst establishing no real ambition for the future. Such a mandate would have been rejected by the majority of states in the GGE format, but now it can be presented as a rescue. This is one of the ways in which belligerent states prevent constraints on their militarism – by ensuring ambitions are kept so low that a conversation simply surviving might be seen as a victory.

But these dynamics make it all the more important that positive states stay positive and focus on giving collective expression to their commitment to negotiating a legal instrument. Slightly changing the wording of an inadequate mandate for future work will still leave an inadequate mandate for future work.  Falling into the ‘blame game’ will only make partnership-building more difficult in the future.  And complaining about the CCW’s working procedures is, well… pointless. Positive action to build a collective voice is a response that is not complicit in the collective disempowerment that the CCW consistently provides a forum for. With a sufficient number of voices using the Review Conference to continue to call for negotiations on autonomous weapons, we will build a foundation that can empower a genuinely constructive conversation in the future.

The issue of autonomous weapons systems is the main focus of debate at the CCW this Review Conference, but there are other issues of urgent humanitarian concern that states and civil society will continue to raise. 

Incendiary weapons inflict horrendous suffering, pain and are difficult to treat. Although the CCW has long recognised that the use of incendiary weapons in or near concentrations of civilians is highly problematic, Protocol III is in urgent need of strengthening to address its shortcomings. At a minimum, the definition of incendiary weapons should be updated to include multipurpose incendiary munitions such as white phosphorous, as they have the same cruel effects on the human body. Furthermore, the Protocol should also be revised to prohibit the use of ground-launched incendiary weapons in populated areas, alongside the prohibition on such use of air-dropped munitions. However, a more comprehensive approach to civilian protection would be secured by prohibiting incendiary weapons altogether.

Although not on the agenda of the CCW, many states will rightly voice concern over the use of explosive weapons in populated areas as an urgent humanitarian issue which has been on the humanitarian agenda for many years now. Whilst negotiation of a political declaration on this issue has been delayed by COVID, consultations are now scheduled to take place in February 2022. States should acknowledge the severe harm caused by such use and commit to avoid the use of explosive weapons that have wide-area effects in populated areas, and indicate support for agreeing a political declaration that will strengthen the protection of civilians.