Article 36 Podcast episode 8: CCW Review Conference Special Part III
By Elizabeth Minor, Richard Moyes & Uldduz Sohrabi
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to Article 36 Autonomous Weapons podcast series, where we raise a critical voice on weapons. My name is Uldduz Sohrabi and I’m your host. As always, I am delighted to be joined by my colleagues here at Article 36, Richard Moyes and Elizabeth Minor for the part three episode of the CCW Review Conference special series.
[00:00:41] If you’re new to our work and you would like to get to know us more, please visit our website at ARTICLE36.ORG, where you’ll find a wealth of information on the policy issues on autonomous weapons.
Before we get started with today’s discussion, I would love to take advantage of this opportunity to ask our listeners to sign a petition for the stop killer robots campaign, a global coalition that Article 36 coordinates. Together we’re calling on governmental leaders around the world to launch a negotiation for new international law on autonomy in weapons systems. To sign the petition visit STOPKILLERROBOTS.ORG/NOW.
[00:01:24] In this episode, we reflect over the CCW Review Conference meetings held last December in Geneva, where states met to talk further on the issue of regulating autonomous weapons systems. And we’ll also be looking ahead discussing the path in this line of regulatory work. Now Richard, you followed the meetings quite closely in this process. Could you give us a summary of what happened at the review conference? How did the meetings compared to our predictions or expectations in the previous podcast episodes?
Richard Moyes [00:01:58] Yeah. Thanks, Uldduz. Good to see you again. It was pretty awful. I mean, it was really, really awful. I suppose we did to an extent predict that, but I probably fell below our predictions of all for less I’m afraid. You said at the beginning of this was part three of our review conference special, I’m kind of hoping by the end of the episode, it will have transitioned into part one of the way forward future episodes towards a positive outcome in the world.
[00:02:30] Because I think we need to leave this meeting very much behind us really. Yeah, it was obviously the group of governmental experts met the week before the Review Conference. So these two meetings kind of happened back-to-back and what we saw the group of governmental experts meeting the GGE was unfortunately probably as could have been predicted, a pretty constructive paper that had been put forward by the Belgian chair, more or less got sort of systematically rejected by certain states in the group to the point where it became clear that the chair could not take that forward as a reflection of work of the group as a whole, in fact, the GGE was basically unable to decide on anything. The chair had to turn that paper into simply a paper in his own personal capacity. The GGE wasn’t able to come to any recommendations on the mandate for future work all the way forward.
[00:03:28] All of this because states that don’t want to make progress on this issue. Don’t want to address the challenges posed by autonomy and weapon systems They just continue to maintain their objections. And the CCW mode of work allows them to prevail in that context, this set up a pretty familiar kind of CCW dynamic and in a way, a pretty familiar multi-lateral dynamic where, faced with the prospect of absolutely nothing we ended up at the end of the CCW review conference with a very meagre way forward, that could be presented as a kind of victory as if this victory of agreeing that we would have some future meetings was a success in the context of the failure that we were previously facing.
It’s a bit like when states are faced with a new issue and they spend three years and decided at the end of it, that international law does apply, you know, it involves dropping so far below the baseline of just your normal starting point of expectations that it can be presented as a sort of success when you achieve the most minimal, frankly, nothing in terms of ways forward. So. That was part of the overall flow.
[00:04:39] I mean, after the GGE basically there was private meetings on the weekend between the GGE and the review conference. And at this private meeting, a small group of states stitched up what the outcome was going to be. And after a sort of a bit of a charade of participation in the discussion itself that’s what they ended up with.
[00:04:58] The review conference itself, I said it was unpleasant. I mean, it really was pretty unpleasant. It was a pleasant, if you, interested in civilian protection in any area. Certain states, but frankly, particularly led by Russia were objecting across the board to any progressive movement and were stripping away established language on a whole range of weapon related issues.
[00:05:22] So there was a systematic process of basically making it clear that under the process of work that the CCW adopts this orientation to consensus where essentially certain individual states kind of can just exert a veto if they are sort of inclined, they basically use that across the board to drive out as much sense of caring about protecting people in conflict as this meeting could possibly allow. So it was an extremely negative dynamic and against that, there was a handful of states, but frankly there was a few diplomats within a handful of states who were working very hard across the board, trying to keep the language.
[00:06:04] Trying to keep a sense that this was a meeting that was demonstrating concern for civilian protection. Credit to those people for the hard work that they were doing. But it was all there was, you know, it wasn’t like the room as a whole was working hard to protect civilians either. It just felt like a rather sad and exhausted, state of affairs.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:06:25] As in the last podcast we were predicting what would happen. Since we can predict these things. Is there a sort of a pattern that we’ve seen consistently within these States across different types of negotiations?
Richard Moyes [00:06:37] Yeah. Thanks. So it does. And I think that that is an important perhaps final point for me to make here is just that sense that this was entirely predictable. Okay. It was more negative in its tone than people might have predicted, but it was entirely predictable. And you get a load of states, you know, Northern European states, particularly standing up in these meetings and talking about how consensus means [00:07:00] that we all have to listen to each other and find a way together.
[00:07:03] It’s bullshit and they know it’s bullshit and they should know is bullshit if they’ve been following these meetings because it’s the same, every time they come out with this rubbish about what consensus means for bringing people together and building bridges. But the reality is always what we saw at the end of last year, which is that a hand full of militarised states drive civilian protection off the agenda. And some of the states who go along with that should be ashamed of themselves for the way that they refuse to acknowledge that this is what they’re complicit in.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:07:36] And what were the formal decisions made at the meetings and where do those position now lead the conversation for the future?
Elizabeth Minor [00:07:45] Well, on autonomous weapons, we basically got kind of 10 more days of discussion in the GGE format in Geneva in 2022. And I’ll read you what the group has to consider “to consider proposals and elaborate by consensus possible measures, including taking into account the example of existing protocols within the convention and other options related into the normative and operational framework of emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.”
So it’s just to talk about things in a continuation of the conversation in a similar format. And as we were just saying about being able to predict where things might go in the predictability of conversations in this forum.
[00:08:24] I mean, I think it doesn’t give very much basically for states and others who want to really push things forward in the direction of a legal instrument to regulate autonomous weapons systems in the CCW. I think we know that it’s going to be the kind of same dynamic next year in terms of making any decisions and moving that forward in any meaningful way in this forum.
[00:08:48] So where does that leave the conversation and how to take things forward? I suppose at this point, like for us, we really think it’s the case that I guess we need to develop the conversation, in other formats and in other spaces in order to move things forward politically.
[00:09:03] And I think we’ll talk about that a bit more later in the podcast. I think there was maybe some acknowledgement from some civil society, but also states, in the conversations in the review conference, that the CCW might not be the only forum in which we need to discuss this issue now.
[00:09:19] And there should be openness to talking about this kind of in other spaces and in other ways, if we’re going to be able to make progress. So I think, that’s where we’re left.
Richard Moyes [00:09:29] I think that’s right. And I feel like, obviously probably came across in my previous comments that I do feel a bit disgusted by what we saw at the review conference and a little bit, angry about that.
[00:09:41] I don’t think that in any way translates to being disappointed or disheartened by this outcome. We knew the CCW wasn’t going to produce a constructive outcome. In fact, what the CCW did was put on a demonstration of its inability to make progress on this issue. A very clear demonstration that should be used as a foundation for us for build and work towards a legal instrument, elsewhere, because you can’t look at the conversation we had in December and say with a straight face, yes, this, this is the forum that can respond effectively to this issue. It’s a forum that can’t even keep hold of agreements that it’s made in the past on protecting people from certain weapons.
[00:10:18] So this is just to say it’s a bit disheartening. It terms of what it says about the state of the world to watch a meeting like that. But in terms of the trajectory of this issue, it isn’t disheartening. Actually. It’s a platform for us to build upon and that’s the work of the future.
Elizabeth Minor [00:10:33] We’ve had some, as we’ve discussed before, a lot of discussion in the CCW that has been very useful for building up understanding of this issue and where it should go next . And you know, the fact that those discussions, I think we can all acknowledge won’t translate into regulation within the CCW framework– that obviously doesn’t mean that they’re wasted at all. That gives a great basis for doing this work and moving things forward to actually achieve that outcome. But [00:11:00] it’s more and more evident that it’s not going to be in this forum no matter how much we might want that as the, as the ideal thing, because it’s a structure that exists and that is meant to address these issues, right? This is a convention which has meant to add protocols to itself, to deal with difficult weapons issues that implicate harm to people. So it should be the appropriate forum, but for the reasons Richard was discussing it’s just not right now.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:11:27] When I hear both of you say that, I think as well the fact that, these states that are trying to block these processes as well, the fact that we already know and can predict that they’re going to behave in these ways and use their vetoes to sort of block the progress. It’s just about, well, it’s going to happen anyways, but to what extent are they going to be a pain and trying to block it. There’s always been these navigations around them. So with, or without them, the progress will go through and it’s sort of them just picking their positioning in the process as well. Like you say, there are other alternatives that should be looked at. Richard you’ve explained that there are states who work hard on the side of actually setting the norms protecting people, but equally there are these States that we talked about who are setting their way to sort of prevent any progress of happening. What is the agenda of these States? And is this purely a military interest, or would you say that there are some states that are in some way insidiously working to act to destroy the norms and perhaps they use this discussion to progress in this bigger agenda that they have?
Richard Moyes [00:12:32] Yeah. I think, I think that’s right Uldduz. And I think when you see it happening across the board, right. It’s not just tied to the to the issue of autonomous weapons in the CCW, but it was on the issue of incendiary weapons, or even references to cluster munitions or anti vehicle mines. Some of those issues that the CCW has protocols on, right. There are states who are also then blocking further discussion on those matters when it’s across the board in that forum. And then you look outside of the CCW at the wider world and see patterns of belligerent behaviour and essentially of sort of international norms and expectations.
[00:13:13] Then I think you can start to see that the agenda that’s actually playing out in the CCW, isn’t really about autonomous weapons at all. It is about breaking down norm setting and standard setting in the world and the idea of international law and the idea of a sort of framework of international expectations.
[00:13:31] I’m afraid, that’s where many of the Northern European states who are sitting on the fence in this issue.And I would include the UK very strongly amongst that group. That’s where they’re letting international society down, because rather than stepping up and speaking in favour of international norm building and stepping up in favour of stronger international law, they’re actually just kowtowing to this erosion of the protections that are already in place and they need to get beyond this feeling of military anxiety that maybe setting rules here is going to be too constraining of our military capacities. What they need to realise is that there is a much bigger strategic goal at stake in living in a world where rules and norms are taken seriously and are felt to be important and fundamental in governing international relationships. And you build that sense by having confidence that rule setting will work. And I think Increasingly going to be at stake in how the issue of autonomous weapons moves forward in the future. Part of it’s going to be technical arguments about the morality of certain technologies and the practicalities of maintaining existing international law in the context of technologies that challenge human control.
[00:14:46] But part of it’s also going to be about- do we still, as a group of states and other actors in society, have confidence to put rules in place and to say we believe in these rules and we challenge you to reject them because we think still there is a communicative norm setting expectations, setting power in society to protect people that has meaning, and that is good and that is in our collective benefit and that we’re going to stand behind it.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:15:11] Why is the treaty in the best interest of all states and even the states that don’t want to see a treaty as an outcome of this process and what is needed to actually see this treaty happen.
Richard Moyes [00:15:23] I mean, if we look at certain states, if we look at Russia, the US, China, and. India and others, there are certain states here who are locked in a dynamic with each other, which is increasingly suspicious and antagonistic in certain contexts and adversarial. And I think in that context, we have a sort of arms race mentality, developing.
[00:15:48] We have a mindset developing, which is no side wanting to step back or put down that their openness or that flexibility for technological development in this military space. But when it comes to these technologies, this sort of potential of acceleration that autonomous weapon technologies put in place the potential for extending your capacity to apply force in space and time ,the dehumanisation and the loss of the reduction of control that’s potentially at stake in all of this. I think all of those states do actually have an interest in there being lines imposed, which should constrain their developments. And I think in that context, knowing that these states don’t want to agree at a thing and some of them have made it very clear in the CCW that we can’t pretend they want to agree something.
[00:16:36] So they don’t want to agree rules in this space, they say. So I think that means the burden is on the rest of us the wider community of states, states who do want to respond. I think that the responsibility is on them to fill that space and to say, these are the lines. These are the expectations that we think should pertain.
[00:16:56] We’re giving these lines the force of law, because that’s the strongest way to, to exert that normative effect on the world. And we’re going to push for these lines to bear upon you states who do not adopt this treaty regardless. We’re going to hold you to this standard communicatively around the world.
[00:17:14] Society is going to hold you to this standard. And I think that will have an effect on those states. Those states who stand outside it, they actually want that effect to some extent to be born upon them because ultimately, they don’t win by simply losing control of the ability to apply force. It’s just posturing that keeps them in the mode that they’re in at the minute. I think we need to have confidence that norm setting will still work, even if those states reject that at the outset.
Elizabeth Minor [00:17:40] And if we want to have influence on their behaviour, we need to just go ahead. Like Richard was saying, and make this law and develop these norms and that will have an influence. You can’t wait for them to be ready to have those negotiations because that’s not what they see as in their kind of immediate interest in the space, but it’s then ultimately their interests and that’s of the world to have these rules and to limit this arms racing dynamic. This is about something much bigger than even killer robots, which was already big and bad enough, right? This is something that is really important to be keeping these values and fighting for those values of rules and norms.
Richard Moyes [00:18:15] And we definitely don’t have influence on those states by kowtowing to them and conceding power to them in the way that was demonstrated in December. Right? I mean the December meeting was almost like a demonstration by international community of the concession of power to Russia. I mean, that’s basically what states acted out and if that’s what they think is a strategic utility to them, I just don’t understand what they’re thinking.
There needs to be leadership towards norms and values because if they haven’t got that, I don’t see what they’ve got.
Elizabeth Minor [00:18:47] I mean, it’s important to acknowledge that dialogue and engagement and trying to compromise is not always the way that you actually do, generate, change and, reach agreements, which are beneficial to everyone.
Sometimes it needs different dynamics and tension and pressure that comes from in this case, certain states going ahead to do some norm setting without the agreements of others and engaging in trying to reach a common kind of agreement or some consensus here, it isn’t going to work because it’s not gonna get anywhere because of this power dynamic, like Richard is saying, so we need to try something different.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:19:25] I hear both of you looking at the bigger picture. And it does feel like a lot of fundamental issues get lost in the noise of these meetings. In particular, like you both mentioned the moral and the humanitarian starting points. Firstly, it’s important to remember the bigger picture around the policy and the purpose of this regulatory process, where the meetings are not an end in themselves. And secondly, it must be a concern that progressive states and campaigners lose confidence when these meetings produce so little. What is important to remember while in this process to not get caught up in all of the noise and having been part of this campaign from the very beginning and helping in shaping the conceptualisations of these issues. How would you reflect on the progress?
Elizabeth Minor [00:20:12] Well, I think there’s a couple of things which are quite important to reflect on of the progress we’ve made over the past couple of years. I mean, I was reflecting wistfully the other day on two years ago was the last time that Stop Killer Robots Campaign had a big in-person campaigners meeting in Buenos Aires and directly before that Brazil held a seminar in Rio on autonomous weapons to discuss these issues. And I think since then the policy response that we’ve been talking about in this podcast series of how we need to regulate autonomous weapons systems in an international treaty.
[00:20:46] So have a structure of prohibitions and positive obligations of addressing a wide scope of sensor-based weapon systems that apply force automatically, sense targets, having prohibitions on systems that target people and systems that can’t be effectively controlled and then having positive obligations for meaningful human control over the rest of the systems within the scope.
[00:21:09] I mean, that was quite unfamiliar as a policy structure and as like the idea of what the response should be two years ago. This is something that was just starting to be discussed, like amongst civil society and, with states who were thinking about what could be the response to this issue.
[00:21:25] And since then, I think we’ve really seen the kind of cementing of understanding around this structure of policy response as a good way forwards, a good common understanding of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the sort of scope of regulation of autonomous weapons and much more in-depth discussion from a common basis amongst civil society and states. And that’s really an important bit of progress because that’s what we need in order to then move forward to a legal instrument to have that discussion and that understanding already. And we’ve seen this develop within the CCW and within other conversations.
So I think it’s really important to remember that and to see that as our progress and the kind of confidence that has built amongst the progressive states and campaigners that understand what the way forward is going to be.
[00:22:14] And some, I suppose, we’ll say, like we’re saying in this podcast, it’s important to keep our eye on the bigger, important issues of, why are we doing this? Why do we need this treaty in the first place? And it’s to do with these fundamental issues of humanity and control over the use of force and control over our identities and our relationship with technology as human beings and how that impacts in society in various spheres.
[00:22:39] Like that’s the reason we need this response. And it’s easy for all of us to get bogged down in the process of the CCW and what’s going on there. And trying to make things happen there, which we should, and then not being able to, because of these reasons that we’ve been talking about. But important to hold onto that progress that we’ve made and you know why we’re doing this and why we need to really move forward now.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:23:03] And how do we see the timeline of the period ahead? And do we have a clearer sense of direction of what is likely to happen next?
Richard Moyes [00:23:11] As Elizabeth said that move to policy coherence is an absolutely fundamental foundation. We really do understand each other now. And whilst there may not be complete agreement within that, we understand that that we’re operating within the same framework and the kind of differences of position they’re the kind of differences that can be worked through in treaty negotiations ultimately.
[00:23:33] So I think this has been major progress and it’s progress it’s necessary in order to have the kind of political conversations that need to happen next. Okay, COVID has disrupted our work. It’s disrupted everybody’s working lives over recent years, it certainly makes it more challenging to build up the kinds of political trust and confidence and partnership that are needed to launch a treaty process. But we can certainly hope over the next six months to a year that we have a bit more space to start bringing people together in that confidence building exercise. So with this foundation of policy coherence now in place, I think the work for us ahead is confidence building and group building amongst the progressive states. We need to find ways as civil society to set an agenda away from the CCW, bringing people together and working constructively with our focus on how do we create a legal instrument? How do we create a genuine response to the, to the moral and humanitarian problems that were presented with here?
So that’s going to be a challenge, not getting too distracted by these meetings of the CCW. You know, watching the dog chase its tail round and round in circles. Okay. You know, we’re not, we’re not on the internet watching these kinds of things. We mustn’t get distracted from the real work, right. So we need to stay focused on how can we actually agree a legal instrument. States will need to come together to start to have some private conversations on that they probably got to decide- is there a way through the UN general assembly or does it need to be a free standing treaty process?
[00:25:07] Frankly, I think it needs to be a freestanding treaty process, but states who are prepared to take leadership will need to work through that conversation themselves and then we need to start building it towards that. So I think from our side in civil society, we’re going to be able to facilitate some of these conversations. We’re going to be able to try to bring people together. Build a sense of partnership between civil society states and international organisations, UN agencies. Build a sense of community. There’s some tension within groups from last year that I think we need to work our way through or that needs to just find space to work its way through over the course of the period ahead. People have been under a lot of pressure and we need to find a positive way forward for everybody who’s committed to take an action. Finally I think that, you know, later this year within civil society, we’ll probably try to organise a significant international meeting where we can frame the issue on the terms that we think are most appropriate.
[00:26:04] Not disarmament terms from the 1970s with a sort of cold war mentality and a very narrow focus only on existing law but rather a focus that allows us to recognise the importance of human rights, recognise that this is an issue not just in conflict, but actually that has implications across society more broadly, you know, how we make decisions, how we control automated decisions about how we kill each other. But if we can’t shape that in society, how are we going to shape and control machine decision making about other areas of our lives. So we need to put this in its place as a representative issue of a major social challenge that we’re faced with in terms of our relationship as individuals and as a society with technology. So bringing a meeting together on those kinds of terms, inviting the progressive states, those who want to take action to a meeting like that and challenging them to take the next step, which is to launch treaty negotiations because it’s only states that can negotiate a legal instrument.
[00:27:04] Unfortunately, a civil society can’t do that. Maybe fortunately- but you know, at the end of the day, states have a genuine sort of representative relationship to the people in the geographical areas. They’re empowered to make legal instruments in this space. And we need to see them step up and start doing that in the next 12 months.
And I’m sure they will.
Uldduz Sohrabi [00:27:26] Richard Elizabeth, thank you very much for joining today.
Elizabeth Minor [00:27:29] Thanks, Uldduz.
Richard Moyes [00:27:30] Thanks, Uldduz.
[00:27:32] That’s all from us at article 36 on this review conference special episode. If you found this podcast useful, please share it with your network. And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn and/or Twitter through our handle at article 36.
Bye for now.