OMG WTF UN CCW GGE LAWS (A Blog About Killer Robots)

When Mary Wareham from Human Rights Watch and the brilliantly-named “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” asked me to join her delegation at the UN CCW GGE LAWS meeting, I didn’t hesitate long enough to wonder what all those letters meant; I immediately said YES!

It wasn’t until I got to Geneva that I came to fully understand the power and nuance behind all the acronyms, and what we are aiming to accomplish in the weeks and months to come.

So, let’s talk about this important international effort and in doing so, I’ll try to shine some light on all the acronyms in the title of this post.

The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) is quite a mouthful. The full title of the convening body is actually the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects.


Aside from their important role in generating extra-long titles, the CCW is also a body of international diplomats, academics, NGOs, and “Others” (like me) who have experience and motivation to contribute to international humanitarian law regarding weapons that are not otherwise classified as weapons of mass destruction.

The CCW has existed since 1983 and, according to Wikipedia (and my colleagues here at the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which I’ll henceforth refer to as “The Campaign”) has successfully banned booby traps, incendiary weapons, blinding laser weapons, and works on the continued elimination of explosive remnants of war.

With all of these grand achievements, it’s quite shocking to hear from insiders here that their impression of this body is, generally speaking, “ineffective”.

The CCW has not passed new, strong regulation in nearly a decade. This is, in fact, largely due to the rules of the governing body, that require 100% consensus from all nations. I bet you can guess who’s most frequently standing in the way of putting super deadly and incredibly cruel weaponry on the shelf…

If not, I’ll tell you. My next blog post is called “The United States is an International Bully”. But more on that will come another time.

For now, I’ll continue to explain the broad strokes of the situation and motivate the goals we’re hoping to achieve this week.

The Campaign, a global coalition of more than 100 NGOs across 54 countries, wants the CCW to agree to a legally binding instrument that will completely ban autonomous technology that does not have “meaningful human control” in between the selection of a target and the decision to kill. They seek also to clearly define, in technical terms, which critical functions require this human control, and what is meant, precisely, by the term “meaningful”.

There is hope.

Right now, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a group of more than 100 states who are explicitly calling for a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. This group includes some notable/powerful allies. The EU is, debatably, in fits and starts, leaning in that general direction, and Germany especially is worth pointing out for their support. Heiko Maas, Germany’s Foreign Minister has been quoted saying that Germany wants “to codify the principle of human control over all deadly weapons systems internationally, and thereby take a big step toward a global ban on fully autonomous weapons.” However, the German delegation stopped, mysteriously, just shy of calling for a ban during this CCW session.

Even China supports a moratorium, although there is debate around whether this opposition is, in fact, strategic and aimed at gaining a competitive AI advantage.

Indeed, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Palestine are pushing hard for a Ban. I find this quite interesting in the context of AI Ethics Principles, which generally accept that “those who are to be most affected by the [AI] themselves” should have a loud, important voice in the creation of this AI. And who, I might ask, are more likely to be affected by this escalation than the countries who have already been the target of remote warfare?

There are also surprises.

Aside from the usual suspects (Russia/Israel), it’s frustrating to see that Australia, the Netherlands, the UK, and the USA are all seemingly opposed to such a legal instrument.

In fact, they seem largely opposed to many of the restrictions those of us who abhor this paradigm shift in global warfare would like to see.

States will have the rest of this week and another two working days in August to agree on  “A Way Forward”. Here are the options:

  1. A legally binding instrument banning autonomous weapons

  2. A political declaration stating that countries will not use autonomous weapons

  3. A list of guidelines/principles or a code of conduct adopted by the group

  4. An improvement to existing legal requirements, including legal review of weapons

  5. Or, I guess, nothing at all.

In my humble opinion, anything short of Option 1 would be a disgrace.

It’s quite clear from Russia’s continued attempts to filibuster, delay, and undermine these proceedings that they have no interest in pursuing global safety. In fact, without regulation with teeth, it seems obvious that they will proceed in the continued manufacture of expensive, dangerously inaccurate AI-powered weaponry with the intent of acquiring further global influence through the sale of these weapons to their allies.

This convening of the CCW is not tasked with generating new international law quite yet. By the end of the second session in August, they will have to agree (in total unison) on a path forward. This will determine the next steps, which inevitably will include continued discussion and debate.

If no progress is made in 2019, it’s worth noting that, although the Campaign is rooting for the CCW to succeed, some Campaigners are ready to look outside of the body to achieve their (our) goal. If there’s no collective condemnation of this kind of weapon, they’re ready to pursue other avenues to limit the spread of killer robot warfare.

Can’t wait to see how it shakes out. Tune in for more… VERY SOON!

Liz O'SullivanComment