We need to restart talks on regulating autonomous weapons—now

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 1 Spring 2021

To no one’s surprise, United Nations discussions on the regulation of autonomous weapons have stalled. Last year, the global pandemic caused delays, with only one week of discussions—partly in Geneva, Switzerland and partly virtual—taking place from September 21-25. November’s annual meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), at which the 2021 schedule for discussions on autonomous weapons would have been set, was cancelled.

Now questions are arising about how to reenergize the discussion. Could some other multilateral forum serve to steer the global community toward negotiations of a legal instrument that regulates autonomous weapons? Or will the world watch as militaries adopt more autonomous systems, unfettered by effective controls?

The problematic push for autonomous weapons

Some countries are actively striving for greater autonomy in their weapons systems.

According to a recent Washington Post Magazine article, then assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition Will Roper “said that because of the way AI [artificial intelligence] capabilities are accelerating, being behind means the United States might never catch up, which is why he’s pushing to move fast and get AI out into combat.” The United States is concerned that China, in particular, is leading in the race to develop more autonomous weapons.

China’s focus on technological advancement is at the core of its geopolitical goal to integrate civilian and military spheres. The United States and its allies fear this drive to military-civil tech fusion, although experts such as Elsa B. Kania and Lorand Laskai note that such integration in China is far from complete and more of an aspiration at present.

Countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, and South Korea are also in the market for systems such as loitering munitions or kamikaze drones that appear to be functioning with increasing autonomy.

But, while AI tech is constantly improving, it can still be described as brittle, biased, and immature. Largely the product of civilian industries, in any rapidly changing combat situation, this tech is unreliable and could put lives at risk. For example, a failure of facial recognition technology could be tragic if the system was involved in choosing a strike target.

For these and other reasons, many states support a partial or total ban on autonomous weapons systems. But opposition also exists. China has publicly supported a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, but does not support a universal ban on all fully autonomous weapons. For the past six years, Russia has been the most vocal in opposing efforts to ban weapons that are capable of selecting and engaging targets without human control.

Getting talks on regulation back on track

Some countries continue to see the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons as the most appropriate forum for discussions on the regulation of autonomous weapons. But civil-society organizations and states that want a ban on these weapons fear ongoing delays, at least partly because of the CCW’s consensus-based model of operations. In the past, the need for unanimity has led to the inability to resolve even basic questions on how long meetings should last. Looking at the last six years of discussion, these groups fear that consensus on banning autonomous weapons will never be reached. So far, no regulation of autonomous weapons has come out of the CCW.

Other analysts value the CCW as an incubator that allows countries the time and space to better understand the complexities around regulating or banning autonomous military tech. Researcher Neil C. Renic at the University of Hamburg points out that CCW talks have addressed technological, legal, and ethical concerns relating to autonomous systems and their use in warfare. He believes that these discussions have contributed to growing support for a ban or regulation.

However, Renic also notes that the CCW’s deficiencies have pushed civil-society organizations and states that support a ban to consider different venues to achieve regulation.

For example, the process could be taken outside the UN system. This was done to achieve a ban on landmines. Or the issue could go through the UN General Assembly. Both of these options would present challenges in a divided and tense global political environment.

The push for regulation would have to be championed by committed states such as Austria, Brazil, and perhaps Belgium, whose parliament passed a resolution supporting a ban on autonomous weapons. Also needed would be the support of key international institutions and civil-society organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. These champions would need to engage with the main advocates for autonomous weapons, such as the United States, Australia, and Russia.

What role for Canada?

During the years of discussion, Canada has been more observer than participant. However, a mandate to support efforts to ensure a ban on autonomous weapons was given to then Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne and remains in place for current Foreign Minister Marc Garneau. Garneau, a former astronaut, certainly understands technological advancements and the need for reliable tech.

Canada, with likeminded states, could revitalize the stalled talks on autonomous weapons at the CCW or champion the cause in other multilateral venues. Showing leadership and engagement on this topic would be useful in building a broader diplomatic strategy on technological developments.

The current hiatus in the process to regulate autonomous weapons should be seen as an opportunity to consider how best to create technological policies that are human-centric and do not treat civilian lives as mere objects or data points.
But the international community must move quickly. The drive to create autonomous military technologies is strong and gaining momentum. The drive to control these systems must be just as focused and just as nimble.

Photo: The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was held at the United Nations in Geneva in August 2019. Branka Marijan

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