The final CCW Governmental Experts meeting on autonomous weapons for 2022 was again unable to come to any agreement. Held in Geneva, from 25-29 July, this was the last chance for the Group of Experts to find a way forward. Although the Chair of the meeting, Amb. Damico of Brazil, had proposed a succinct but valuable set of substantive points for adoption, Russia effectively vetoed any progress. Following from the failure of last year’s Sixth Review Conference, this further failure makes the claims of Norway, Netherlands, Germany and others, that the CCW represents the only ‘appropriate forum’, seem increasingly desperate.

These states, along with four others, had circulated a joint paper urging the Chair to adopt new language promoting the CCW as the only place for discussing this issue – a proposal that failed to gain the support of the USA and wasted half a day of the meeting. However, it was again Russia’s intransigence and procedural complaints that ran down the clock and saw all of the Chair’s constructive efforts abandoned.

We highlight Norway, Netherlands and Germany above because all of these countries have national-level political commitments to take action on this issue. However, whilst political leaders call for action, the working level diplomats have been handcuffing themselves to less progressive partners in order to justify standing still. Instead of thwarting their own political mandates, these countries need to be building partnerships with the growing body of states who recognise that a legal instrument is necessary.

A positive aspect of the week was the continued consolidation around the key elements of human control that are necessary for weapons systems to be used appropriately – including the need to understand system functioning, and to constrain the location and duration of that functioning sufficiently to make meaningful legal judgements.  There is also a recognition that systems that do not allow the exercise of those controls are unacceptable and should be prohibited. Whilst states still struggle to find the courage to start a process towards a legal instrument, this emerging policy consensus should provide reassurance that such an instrument, skilfully developed, will actually command broad support.

For the CCW, however, the future of work on this issue looks uncertain. It is unlikely that Brazil would wish to continue chairing the Group in 2023 given the experience of this year – and with recent Chairs of the group all having had their work rejected, it is unlikely that any state would be clamouring for the job. Across the room, a large number of diplomats have also been working hard on the issue for years only to repeatedly find that their work is fruitless. This takes a toll on people. And these meetings cost money: is it really justified to spend over USD 300,000 on meetings that only manage to agree that the meetings took place? Needless to say, in the supposedly ‘appropriate forum’ for solving the complex challenges of autonomy in weapons systems, even agreeing that the meetings did take place was a major struggle…