Global Movement to Ban Killer Robots Comes to Buenos Aires

By Daniel Moubayed, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic

Civil society campaigners from around the world recently convened in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the second global meeting of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Coordinated by Seguridad Humana en Latinoamérica y el Caribe (SEHLAC), the meeting aimed to support and strengthen advocacy for a treaty to ban fully autonomous weapon systems. Through panel sessions, workshops, and inspirational talks, about 100 participants learned how far the Campaign has come since its previous meeting in Berlin and what work is still needed to achieve a treaty. They left feeling invigorated and empowered to continue their efforts in national capitals and international fora to address the fundamental legal, moral, and ethical issues fully autonomous weapon systems present.

Maria, the Friendly Robot, outside the Casa Rosada, in Plaza de Mayo, the site of many political movements in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Campaign mascot Maria at Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires.
Credit: Daniel Moubayed, 2020

The Buenos Aires meeting built on the success and lessons of the past year. The presence of new campaigners and partner organization brought fresh energy to the room. The Campaign announced that as of February 26, it had grown to 150 member organizations from 63 countries. At the same time, conversations shifted from general calls for action to proposals for specific legal solutions. The Campaign has increasingly highlighted the shortcomings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) discussions and lobbied states to make substantive progress towards negotiating a legally binding instrument. During the Buenos Aires meeting, the Campaign urged Argentina and other states in the region in particular to emerge as champions in the process to create a new treaty.

The meeting opened with a press conference, public event, and visual stunt to celebrate the Campaign’s first convening in Latin America. The press conference’s all-female panel featured activists, engineers, and tech workers who offered varied and intersectional perspectives on the concerns raised by fully autonomous weapon systems. Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate, called on countries to turn their statements of support for a ban into action. Laura Nolan of the International Committee for Robots Arms Control, a tech worker who used to work at Google, described herself as the first conscientious objector to building the precursor systems to killer robots. After the events, Maria, a friendly robot and Campaign mascot, joined campaigners at Plaza de Mayo, the city center of Buenos Aires and the symbolic home to some of the most momentous events in Argentine history.

On the second day of the meeting, panel sessions and working groups examined the rationale for a ban, elements of a future treaty, and ways to build support. Panelists Bonnie Docherty (Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School), Elizabeth Minor (Article 36), and Daniel Moubayed (Harvard Law School) presented the Campaign’s recommended elements of a new legally binding instrument. The proposed treaty would use a combination of prohibitions and positive obligations to retain meaningful human control over the use of force and ban systems that lack such control.

Campaigners spent much of the meeting’s last day strategizing about how to mobilize governments and enlist other actors to help advocate for a ban. Speakers presented the CCW process as an incubator. It provides an opportunity to lobby states and push for more concrete action, likely outside the CCW.

As the meeting concluded, regional groups planned their advocacy for the year ahead. Campaigners from Asia and Africa sought to recruit more organizations to join their ranks. Those from Latin America were particularly energized and planned build on the momentum of the Buenos Aires meeting to push their respective countries to become champions for the cause.

The Campaign’s meeting kicked off this year’s discussions of fully autonomous weapons systems. Multilateral deliberations within the CCW will take place for 10 days in June and August, but they will probably make limited progress. To advance the issue, states have planned or proposed supplementary regional and global conferences in Germany, Japan, Austria, and Latin America. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots stands ready to meet states in any forum to move towards a legally binding instrument.

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