Sattelite antenna in the city

Buildings in Jerusalem.


Weapons (CCW) to ban such weapons have met with deadlock year after year.  At 2023s first round of talks in Geneva, the pace of development of AI-powered weapons technology and its mostly big-power/big-money backers seemed once again to prevail against the glacial pace of diplomacy.

A small group of countries led by the United States argued for the CCW to adopt non-binding multilateral guidelines on these rapidly emerging technologies.  Russia said separately that any such controls over autonomous weapons should be left to each state. Russia has played a key role in blocking the CCW from dealing with this class of weapons in the past. 

A much larger group is calling for a legally binding pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons able to operate without meaningful human control.  Eight countries from the Global South presented a new CCW protocol for that purpose.  Existing CCW protocols address other inhumane weapons including incendiary weapons, blinding lasers, and booby traps.

The Stop Killer Robots campaign, of which the World Council of Churches is a member, said clear prohibitions are needed, not just guidelines.  Meaningful human control of weapons used in armed conflict is essential for moral and legal accountability reasons.  Automated systems that target human beings must be prohibited.  The majority of states recognize that a legally binding instrument is required, the campaign noted.

At the 2022 General Assembly of the United Nations, 70 states joined a statement against autonomous weapons systems—the largest joint statement during this decade of UN deliberations on the issue. 

The Stop Killer Robots campaign warned that negotiations may need to move to a different forum, if the CCW continues to fail.  Further delays raise the risk of widespread and unregulated proliferation of autonomous weaponry, the campaign said.

Argentina, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Panama, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines are members of the inter-regional group that introduced the draft CCW protocol on autonomous weapons at the 6-10 March meeting in Geneva. To develop, produce, possess, acquire, deploy, transfer, or use any autonomous weapon would be prohibited, the draft says, if it would conduct attacks outside meaningful human control,” is incapable of distinguishing between civilians and enemy combatants,” and did not comply with the principles of international humanitarian law or the dictates of public conscience.”

Palestine, with a population often exposed to hi-tech surveillance and attacks, noted that respecting the inherent dignity of a human being is a fundamental ethical concern in the case of robotic weapons. Human beings must not be reduced to data, nor can they be… . The process of reducing humans to data for the purpose of executing force against them would be profoundly unethical,” Palestines representative said.

Sierra Leone and Uruguay spoke for a growing majority of states when they said weapons systems with autonomy in the critical functions of selecting and…apply[ing] force against targets, without human intervention” must be controlled.

The Philippines defined the much-used term meaningful human control” as the human judgment and intervention necessary to ensure responsibility, proportionality and accountability in undertaking decisions regarding the use of any weapon.”

The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan, and Republic of Korea, in an extensive paper, said autonomous weapon systems must not be designed to target civilians or civilian objects, or to spread terror among the civilian population.”  The group said they wanted to clarify how existing cardinal principles of International Humanitarian Law…impose requirements that protect the civilian population and combatants.”

It is [hard] to trust a process that cannot even adopt reports that reflect the majoritys views on key topics, let alone begin work on a concrete outcome despite its mandate to do so,” said Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, in its report on the meeting.

This CCW Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems meets once more in 2023, for a week in May.

Learn more about WCC's work on Arms control and disarmament