It is high time that the annual discussion around lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) delivers a legal or political framework for regulatory purposes
While the GGE languishes in its work, LAWS continue to be developed, and also deployed, stripping the regulatory process around them of a purportedly pre-emptive regulation advantage. The CCW GGE on LAWS remains the only multilateral forum till date where LAWS are exclusively discussed, which makes it the sole option we currently have to regulate LAWS in an increasingly volatile global scenario. Although many other weapons systems have been similarly discussed under the CCW with varying levels of success with regard to their regulation, the structuring of the CCW GGE on LAWS itself seems to predispose it to a gridlock.
The CCW GGE on LAWS remains the only multilateral forum till date where LAWS are exclusively discussed, which makes it the sole option we currently have to regulate LAWS in an increasingly volatile global scenario.
Another structural speedbump is that the Group, as it is named, is made up of governmental experts, i.e. diplomats who might have only a general idea of LAWS. Since LAWS were at the time of their initial discussion, and still are to some degree, very nascent weapons technologies, there have always been several technical, legal, and military-oriented questions around them which are hard to answer for primarily policy personnel. The GGE, thus, principally remains an insular group where LAWS are repeatedly debated at a policy level, within the same intergovernmental echo chamber, and without structured clarification around technical and legal issues that form the crux of the discussions and much of the mystification around LAWS. This is why debates around core characteristic issues such as definitions, the ideas of autonomy and meaningful human control, and technical and ethical considerations have plateaued over the years and crystallised into their current forms, inhibiting the deliberations from translating into a legal or policy framework.
Since LAWS were at the time of their initial discussion, and still are to some degree, very nascent weapons technologies, there have always been several technical, legal, and military-oriented questions around them which are hard to answer for primarily policy personnel.
Civil society has often opined that the GGE has been ineffective for far too long so another forum must be sought and that states campaigning to contain the LAWS discussion solely at the GGE are implicit in its incumbent deadlock. This seems to be a growing trend as LAWS discussions proceed through the years, with many pro-LAWS countries blocking or delaying critical wording in final reports, disagreeing with majority opinions on regulatory questions, and hijacking discussions to air their own grievances and political tirades rather than attempting to reach a collaborative consensus. It can be argued that the consensus-based constriction at the CCW GGE on LAWS has become somewhat of a ‘tyranny of equals,’ and countries that are interested in taking advantage of the catch-22 and delaying discussions are the biggest benefactors of the system. Deliberations on other weapons systems have been taken out of failed CCW cycles before with comparatively much more success than the GGE on LAWS is experiencing currently, such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions of 2008 and the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention (Mine Ban Treaty) of 1997. A potential parallel path for LAWS, in the form of a civil society initiative, UN General Assembly conference like the one for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or even a possible ad-hoc process led by a state, may be a feasible option to explore. As we enter into the second decade of formalised intergovernmental regulatory delays on LAWS in 2023, the hope (for most parties, at least) is to get out of this catch-22 predicament as soon as possible.
A number of states like the United States subscribe to the idea that the CCW GGE, as a forum, is uniquely positioned due to its ‘mix of diplomatic, military, legal, policy, and technical expertise.’
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Shimona Mohan is a Junior Fellow in the Centre for Security Strategy and Technology (CSST) at ORF. Her areas of research include the multifarious intersections ...Read More +