From April 17th-18th, Sierra Leone hosted an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Regional Conference on the Peace and Security Aspect of Autonomous Weapons Systems, in Freetown. The conference represents another crucial step towards addressing the challenges posed by autonomous weapons systems (AWS). It focused on addressing regional concerns regarding the development and proliferation of AWS, alongside the need for the establishment of an international legal instrument to prevent serious human rights risks posed by AWS.   

The conference opened with a strong statement from the President of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, calling for an international legal instrument and emphasising the need and capability for ECOWAS states to provide leadership. He further reiterated that “The urgency for action cannot be overstated. In this context, Sierra Leone, along with like-minded nations, welcomes the growing global call to finalise negotiations on a legally binding instruments, as emphasised in the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief on “A New Agenda for Peace.”’  

Article 36’s Managing Director Richard Moyes spoke on an expert panel about addressing the risks to international peace and security arising from AWS. He addressed attendees on prohibitions and regulations to strengthen the governance framework. International consensus is continuing to develop that such a two-tiered approach should be the basic structure of a treaty to regulate AWS.  

The conference is the latest in a series of regional conferences which were previously held in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. This conference in Sierra Leone builds upon progress from these previous meetings, highlighting the gathering momentum amongst states to act. The meeting was attended by government officials, heads of multilateral and regional institutions, civil society organisations and other experts.   

The current political deadlock in the CCW, where proposals to negotiate a legal instrument will continue to be blocked by certain states, calls for exploring alternative ways to move forward towards a treaty. There is now broad support for action, with over 110 states having spoken in favour of a legally binding instrument on AWS, as well as a strong call from the UNSG and ICRC to conclude a treaty by 2026. States need to act now to progress to negotiations.  

Last year’s UN General Assembly resolution on autonomous weapons systems, co-sponsored by Sierra Leone and a wide range of states from different regions, was a significant political development, seeing an overwhelming majority of states emphasise the urgent need for the international community to address the challenges and concerns raised by AWS. The UNGA provides a route to commence negotiations on a treaty, as a forum that is inclusive of all states and where progress cannot be vetoed by any one country. In their submissions to the UNSG to give their view on ways to address the challenges and concerns raised by AWS, as per the resolution, states must emphasise their commitment to begin negotiations as soon as possible. 

A strong communique was issued at the close of the Freetown conference that highlights the commitment of regional states to actively pursue the development of a legal framework which addresses the tangible threats posed by AWS. By endorsing this communique, ECOWAS states affirmed their commitment to addressing the risks associated with AWS and to contribute meaningfully to global efforts to regulate AWS. Recognising the risks of digital dehumanisation and the critical need for meaningful human control in the use of force, the communique recognises the contributions of previous regional and international initiatives, and the urgency of action. 

Following activity in the UNGA and the recent regional conferences, which show gathering political momentum, the upcoming ‘Humanity at the Crossroads: Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Challenge of Regulation’ conference in Vienna at the end of April, will provide the next vital opportunity to advance the debate on the international regulation of AWS. In Austria, states must express their commitment to act and to move to negotiations.  


Additional resources and publications regarding previous regional conferences are linked below: 

Luxembourg Autonomous Weapons Systems Conference 2023: A global gathering explores legal, ethical and technological aspects of autonomous weapons 

Latin American and Caribbean states lead the way towards a treaty on autonomous weapons