No Canadian leadership on autonomous weapons

Analysis and Commentary, Emerging Technologies, Featured, News, Ploughshares Monitor

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 2 Summer 2022

For some time, Canada’s silence has been a standard feature of international discussions on autonomous weapons. True to form, Canada remained quiet at the April 26-27 informal, virtual sessions on lethal autonomous weapons systems hosted by Brazil, the current chair of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). While there was some Canadian representation, it did not appear that Canadian diplomats were present for most of the discussion. What accounts for Canada’s persistent low-level engagement on this important issue?

Wait and see

Perhaps earlier setbacks explain Canada’s wait-and-see attitude this past April. During the week of March 7, states met to restart CCW discussions, but Russia argued that its diplomats were being unfairly impacted by restrictions on air travel imposed on Russians. Following two days of arguments over procedures, the talks moved into informal mode in an attempt to keep the process moving forward, with sessions scheduled for April, May, and June.

Other states chose to engage. The United States and South Korea were among the states that presented remarks, as did representatives from civil society. New Zealand drew on its delegate’s expertise in arms control and disarmament to make important points on how to regulate the uses of technology rather than the technology itself.

The lack of participation in virtual and informal discussions and meetings also represents a missed opportunity for Canada to better understand how the limitations of the CCW imposed by its requirement for consensus can be overcome.

In contrast, Canada stuck to the pattern established over the last several years. During this time, Canada made a few vague statements on the applicability of international humanitarian law to emerging technologies and the need to maintain human responsibility. These statements seldom exploited Canada’s expertise in technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and in international law. It seemed that Canada was not prepared to substantially engage in discussions; statements, if given at all, avoided interactive responses to contributions from other states.

Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) did send a few experts to the last in-person CCW meetings held before the COVID 19 pandemic, but they acted mainly as observers. Even when talks moved to a hybrid (in-person + virtual) mode, with countries including Austria and Germany hosting virtual dialogues on emerging military technologies, Canada remained largely unengaged. The virtual format, which allows for a much wider engagement of expert communities around the world, could and should have been used by the Canadian government to build capacity on this issue among its diplomats and policymakers.

The lack of participation in virtual and informal discussions and meetings also represents a missed opportunity for Canada to better understand how the limitations of the CCW imposed by its requirement for consensus can be overcome. Some of the more powerful states at the CCW have taken consensus to mean unanimity and have stalled progress in the forum. As some states and civil society actors suggest other forums for the discussions on autonomous weapons, it is important to fully understand what can be achieved at the CCW and how progress can be made elsewhere. Its lack of involvement has essentially left Canada on the sidelines.

An ambiguous stand on autonomous weapons

The blame largely falls on the lack of consistent political will. In 2019, Canadian foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne was given a mandate to “advance international efforts to ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems.” This mandate was passed on to the succeeding minister, Marc Garneau, but appears to have been dropped for the current minister, Mélanie Joly. No matter, because the mandate was never implemented.

This past March, Canada joined Australia, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States in proposing a set of “Principles and Good Practices on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.” But the principles appear to be voluntary and the concept of “good practices” strongly suggests that the development and use of autonomous weapons is seen as a done deal. It is notable (and perhaps disheartening) that Canada signed on to this proposal rather than one supported by 23 countries, including Austria, Ireland, and Switzerland, which called for limits and other regulations on certain types of weapons systems.

Canada’s current ambiguous position on autonomous weapons can likely be explained, at least in part, by the stand taken by key allies, particularly the United States, which wants to see the establishment of a flexible code of conduct even as it continues to produce weapons systems with greater autonomy.

It also appears that Global Affairs Canada and DND have different perspectives on this subject. DND is perhaps keener to keep its options open on the future use of emerging technologies. Recent statements by U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of NORTHCOM and NORAD, clearly express a desire to employ new and developing AI capabilities. As a partner in NORAD, Canada will pay attention to such pronouncements.

But it is still striking that Canada, a leader in such civilian forums on AI as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, does not appear to have the political will to take a meaningful role in shaping the regulations of military applications of AI. According to the 2021 Global AI Index from Tortoise media, Canada ranked fourth in the world in terms of level of investment, innovation, and implementation of AI, behind only the United States, China, and the United Kingdom.

A diplomatic strategy?

Ultimately, it is hard to explain why Canada seems unwilling to let its diplomats and subject experts truly engage in interactive discussions that could reveal points at which states converge on autonomous systems. This lack of engagement has been noticed by international and domestic members of civil society. The most commonly expressed sentiment is that Canada is not pulling its weight in disarmament and arms control forums.

Perhaps Canada is purposefully playing below its skill level, acting in the background, soon to emerge with key diplomatic moves. If so, we can only hope that Canada reveals its strategy soon.

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