I am in Geneva this week to participate in the Convention on Conventional Weapons’ Experts’ Meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. There, I’ll present survey data I collected on US public sentiment around autonomous weapons, joining global civil society in reminding world governments of the Marten’s Clause in the preamble to the Hague Convention. This clause, originally inserted to protect irregular non-combatants in guerilla wars, enjoins states to consider the “dictates of the public conscience” in determining the lawfulness of means and methods of war not openly prohibited by international law.
It is an exciting moment for humanitarian disarmament advocates. Concern over the use of fully autonomous weapons has hit the global agenda faster than perhaps any disarmament campaign on record.* That the Convention on Conventional Weapons has taken the issue seriously enough to throw a multilateral experts’ meeting is a sign of the impact of disarmament NGOs in shaping global discourse on this issue of autonomous weapons – perhaps even giving “human security” a new meaning. Mainstream media are covering the event. So is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 20 Nobel Laureates just issued a sympathetic statement.
However there is still much to do of course: getting something on the international agenda is but the first step in a complex process of norm development. Below the fold is a very quick pre-flight round-up of some interesting analytical perspectives on autonomous weapons hitting the internet in the last few days. These will inform the perspectives of NGOs advocates, experts and diplomats at the conference, where concepts like “autonomy” and “meaningful human control” will begin to be worked out by stakeholders.
- Denise Garcia, a fellow scholar of the disarmament sector, outlined the case against killer robots at Foreign Affairs this week. Predictably, the FA editors have dressed the article up with Terminator images and science fiction subheadings, but despite claims to the contrary, the substance of the article – and the campaigners – are serious.
- Meanwhile, NGOs have been putting out various backgrounders on the issue. Article36.org, the NGO with whose delegation I will be affiliated during my participation, emphasized in its memorandum for delegates the need to put the emphasis on what constitutes “meaningful human control.” This nicely grounds what is sometimes framed by the media as a futuristic discussion in present-day technology as it is a question applicable not only to the fully autonomous weapons coming down the pipeline but also to existing, sensor-fuzed weapons.
- Mark Gubrud of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control is producing some thoughtful and well-sourced essays at his personal blog. His latest essay examines the concept of “autonomy” and flips Article36’s frame on the head: rather than asking what it means for humans to be meaningfully in control, he asks us to think about what “autonomy” means. His perhaps surprising answer: let’s keep it simple and go with the US DoD’s definition.
- On the other hand, a UNIDIR working group has produced a thoughtful analysis of the various frames in this debate and suggests we think of “autonomy” as a spectrum.
- Finally, Human Rights Watch released a new report on policing and autonomous weapons, “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots.” HRW launched the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots with its November 2012 report Losing Humanity. This new report broadens the campaign frame beyond humanitarian law and a concern with battlefields to look at how outsourcing kill decisions violates not just the “distinction” and “proportionality” principles but also the concept of “human dignity.”
I hope to get some more reflections up in the next days, on the socio-diplomatic construction of concepts like “humanity” and “autonomy” and “lethal” but meantime follow the coverage of this important event on Twitter at #stopkillerrobots or #CCWUN and the campaign @bankillerrobots.
*For more on the origins of this campaign and its massive agenda-setting success, see my new book “‘Lost’ Causes?” on shelves next month or pre-order here.