The Group of Governmental Experts of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) met in Geneva from 6 to 10 March 2023 to continue discussing autonomous weapons systems. The meeting provided a valuable conversation about key elements of content – but the value of these discussions will be for the development of work elsewhere.

A handful of states submitted new individual working papers (namely Austria, the State of Palestine, Pakistan, and Russia) whilst Australia, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States provided a revised version of their joint document. Of these, the papers submitted by Austria and the State of Palestine provided thoughtful and innovative content on the shape and content of a future legal instrument.

The meeting provided for a substantive conversation and was characterised by a generally productive and thoughtful tone (with only a few notable exceptions). However, as the session drew to a close a number of states quietly highlighted that their positions had not changed and that they did not see agreement on content within the group. These interventions provide some indication that for the next meeting in May, where the chair will need to formalise some shared outputs from the group, little actual progress is likely to be possible.

The May session is likely to be focused on an elaborate “blame game” where different communities seek to ensure through gossip and insinuation that it is other people who are seen as responsible for any failure to make progress. Some groups will blame other groups, some groups will fall out amongst themselves, and most people will probably be able to blame Russia and/or civil society for being either too obstinate or not obstinate enough.

However, despite the diplomatic enthusiasm for such blame-games, CCW outcomes shouldn’t be a source of too much fixation over the period ahead. It is clear that the CCW cannot achieve an adequate outcome on this issue. This is not a failing of the CCW per se, but a product of how that forum functions in the international political environment. We need now to also foster work in a forum that allows progress for states willing to negotiate a legal instrument.

A focus on content

The GGE discussion continued to show convergence on key aspects of content – and also more direct interrogation of differences.

There was continued recognition that a ‘two-tier’ approach (containing both prohibitions and regulations) provides the best way forwards.  Such an approach was evident in the  new Austrian paper, which defines a prohibition on systems that cannot be sufficiently controlled in relation to a set of positive obligations as well as creating space for a prohibition on anti-personnel systems. Similarly, the State of Palestine submitted a detailed paper, also structured around a two-tier approach and also containing a prohibition on targeting humans directly. Pakistan’s new working paper expresses that ‘there is a clear case for developing an international legal instrument envisaging prohibitions and regulations on the development, deployment and use of LAWS to achieve the object and purpose of the CCW.’

However, there was also a recognition that although a two-tier approach has wide support, that shared label can mask wide differences. For example, the working paper submitted by Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden to the 2022 GGE in July 2022 also has a version of a two-tier approach, but the formulation of the prohibition in that paper we have criticised previously for being fantastical. Similarly, the USA-led joint paper can be argued to contain a two-tier approach, but again it provides little added clarity  as to what would fall into the prohibited category (beyond assertions of existing legal obligations).

Fostering an open, inclusive and productive conversation

The more substantive content-based discussion enabled by this meeting is to be welcomed – the CCW has facilitated a valuable growth of policy thinking on this issue. It is not a rejection of the CCW, however, to recognise that it is not capable of converting that productive conversation into an output that is actually commensurate to the moral, legal and societal challenge presented by autonomy in weapons systems.  That inability is a product of international military politics – the same military politics that have certain states investing heavily in the very technological structures under consideration.

The emphasis then should be on continuing to foster an open, inclusive, and productive conversation on this issue in other political spaces. It is not a matter of challenging the CCW to produce an outcome “or else” – or of leaving the CCW.  The focus should be on broadening the conversation and growing it in places where the majority view can find expression.

The recent Communiqué on behalf of Latin American and Caribbean states has made it clear that 2023 is going to be a year of significant political action on this issue.  There may be irritations and blame-game dynamics in the months ahead, as states wrestle once again with the CCW’s inability to produce meaningful outcomes, but that should not overshadow a growing recognition that states can work together on this issue. And in that process of working together it is possible to find something that is often lost in these discussions – a belief that addressing challenging moral and societal issues is possible.