On 21st October at the United Nations in New York, Austria coordinated and delivered a ground-breaking joint statement on behalf of 70 states.

The statement recognised that autonomy in weapons systems raises serious concerns from humanitarian, legal, security and ethical perspectives, highlighted that a combination of prohibitions and regulations provides a way forward, and committed states to strengthen efforts to address the issue.

However, the significance of the statement is more in the political dynamics around it than in the detailed wording.  The statement was drafted in such a way as to have a broad appeal, emphasising common ground rather than seeking to resolve contentious issues – such as whether an outcome needs to be a legal instrument, or whether the CCW provides the only way forward (spoiler – it doesn’t).

The result was that Austria – a longstanding champion of international disarmament initiatives – ended up speaking on behalf of a group that encompassed both progressive voices calling for a legal instrument and many NATO states that have so far shied away from such a prospect.  This makes clear that despite the lack of progress in the CCW there is actually a growing area of agreement between a substantial and diverse body of states.

It is also important that this diverse group of states were ultimately prepared to stand along-side each other – overcoming some of the group dynamics that have become a feature of the CCW landscape.

The CCW Meeting of High Contracting Parties, 16-18 November, will determine if work will continue on autonomous weapons in the CCW in 2023.  However, CCW’s inherent procedural problems, failure to make progress in 2021 and 2022, and a bleak international context, make a meaningful formal outcome impossible.

The community of states that came together in New York need to use the CCW discussions in 2023 to refine understandings and agreements on key elements of content.  They need to build that further through external meetings – such as the regional meeting that will be hosted in Costa Rica in February 2023, and other international meetings to be convened during the year.

Those discussions should establish confidence that a legal instrument on autonomous weapons can be developed that reflects the vision of a substantial and diverse body of states. With such confidence, procedural mechanisms are available to begin negotiations either in a free-standing process or with a UN mandate. 2023 should see states choose one or the other.