Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: Killer Robots Discussions Resume

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

A key development this past month was the resumption of formal talks on killer robots after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. Despite the lengthy period between meetings, there has been continuing momentum towards a legally binding instrument to regulate the use of such weapons. Meanwhile, the growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan this month prompted calls for urgent international assistance to ensure the protection of civilians. Other notable events this month included the Seventh Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty and the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as well as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

In case you missed it:

  • The Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems met in Geneva from August 3-13, with 55 states participating. The views of a majority of states converged on the idea that killer robots should be governed by a legally binding instrument that includes both prohibitions and positive obligations and that requires “meaningful human control” over the use of force. States will consider the GGE’s next steps at the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, scheduled for December 2021. While most states support negotiating a legally binding instrument, if a negotiating mandate does not result from this conference, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will support states and organizations who are ready to work on a legally binding treaty outside the CCW framework. More information about important themes that arose during the GGE can be found on the Disarmament Dialogue blog and in Reaching Critical Will’s CCW Report.
The picture depicts diplomats conversing in the meeting room during the August CCW meeting on autonomous weapons.
Diplomats gather for the start of the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems in August. Credit: Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, 2021.
  • August 6 and 9 marked the 76th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Communities and organizations around the globe held events to remember the victims of these atrocities and to voice their support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
  • The month of August saw an escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, particularly following the Taliban takeover of the country on August 15. Humanitarian and human rights organizations have called for urgent international responses to assist and protect civilians from further harm.
  • The International Day Against Nuclear Tests on August 29 marked the 30th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan in 1991. In observance of the day, organizations shared information about nuclear testing, stories about victims of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, and reflections on the impacts of nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands.
  • On August 31, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition published the report Through the Lens of Survivor Researchers: Series of Portraits. The publication shares testimonies by landmine and other explosive remnants of war survivor experts who have conducted research for the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitors. The contributors to the report share their first-hand experiences and views of the challenges and opportunities in researching landmine and cluster munition action and the effective realization of victims’ rights, as well as their advice for other researchers.
  • The Seventh Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty took place from August 30-September 2. The conference convened in a hybrid format, with some virtual and some in-person sessions. States parties engaged in discussion around how to improve stockpile management and address the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, as well as on promoting universalization, implementation, transparency, and financial contributions.  More information about the conference can be found on the conference website and in the ATT Monitor by Reaching Critical Will.
  • The ATT Monitor published its 2021 Report on August 31, coinciding with the Seventh Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty. The report analyses stockpile management practices and the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons as well as the information submitted in ATT annual reports and reporting practices and compliance.
  • On September 3, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons published a briefing “Racism, Colonialism, and Nuclear Weapons.” The briefing explains the embedding of racism in nuclear weapons history and doctrine, the disproportionate impact nuclear weapons have had on indigenous peoples and other people of color, and the leadership roles that indigenous peoples and other people of color have played in nuclear resistance movements.
  • High contracting parties to the CCW held a Preparatory Committee meeting from September 6-8 for their Sixth Review Conference in Geneva. Much of the discussion was dedicated to autonomous weapons systems, which will be addressed by a separate committee at the Review Conference. While there was significant support for a stand-alone Review Conference agenda item on incendiary weapons, at least one state blocked consensus so it will likely be covered by the committee reviewing all existing CCW protocols. States also discussed mines other than antipersonnel mines, improvised explosive devices, and other topics. For a detailed overview of the PrepCom meeting, see Reaching Critical Will’s summary.
  • On September 7, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack released a new report, The Impact of Explosive Weapons on Education: A Case Study of Afghanistan. The report documents over 200 reported attacks on education in Afghanistan involving explosive weapons between January 2018 and June 2021. The report notes that explosive weapons have been used in an increasing number of attacks on education since 2018.

The second part of the Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions will take place in a hybrid format in Geneva on September 20-21, 2021. The UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security will take place from October 5-November 5 in New York; the format for the meetings has yet to be announced.