Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: A Fork in the Road for Killer Robots

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative 

The path towards global regulation of autonomous weapons has reached a clear fork in the road. In the past month, within the framework of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), some states continued to insist that existing international humanitarian law can adequately address the potential harms caused by such weapons. Meanwhile, other states in Latin America and the Caribbean met outside the CCW forum and called for an international legally binding instrument containing prohibitions and regulations. Humanitarian disarmament civil society groups are urging states to move discussions around these weapons into a new forum that will act boldly and decisively on this issue.


Maritza chan stands at a podium and speaks into a microphone in front of a large screen projecting the name of the conference. She is wearing a white suit and gold jewelry.
Maritza Chan, Costa Rican Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks at a regional conference on autonomous weapons systems in Costa Rica in February 2023. Credit: Official conference image, 2023. 

In case you missed it: 

  • On February 21, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that Russia was suspending the New START treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty it had with the United States. The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called on Russia to reinstate its participation in the treaty and continue adherence to limits on nuclear arsenals.
  • Members of the Stop Killer Robots campaign met for the Digital Dehumanization conference in Costa Rica from February 20-22. The meeting created a space for campaigners from 29 countries to share strategies and tactics for working toward an international treaty prohibiting and regulating autonomous weapons systems. 
  • From February 23-24, delegates from nearly all Latin American and Caribbean states, along with observers from 13 other states, met in La Ribera de Belén, Heredia, Costa Rica, for the Conference on the Social and Humanitarian Impact of Autonomous Weapons. The conference issued the Belén Communiqué in which states committed to: “Collaborate to promote the urgent negotiation of an international legally binding instrument, with prohibitions and regulations with regard to autonomy in weapons systems.” The Communiqué is the first regional statement on autonomous weapons systems issued outside of a United Nations fora. Its commitments stand in stark contrast to the weak commitments proposed by the United States and the call to action announced by the Netherlands a week earlier at the REAIM conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, neither of which contained prohibitions on systems that cannot be used without meaningful human control or accepted the need for legally binding rules.
  • February 24 marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To mark the occasion, a coalition of civil society organizations issued a joint statement laying out a 10-step plan to address the environmental impacts of the war, and the International Network on Explosive Weapons issued a statement reviewing the humanitarian impacts of the war and calling for the cessation of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • On February 28, Nigeria ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, becoming the 111th state party to the treaty.
  • The Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) held its first meeting on March 1. The SAG is mandated to report to the Meeting of States Parties on nuclear weapons research, including on humanitarian consequences and disarmament verification, and to establish a network of scientific experts to support the goals of the TPNW.
  • The CCW Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on legal autonomous weapon systems met in Geneva from March 6-10. In advance of the meeting, Australia, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, jointly, and Russia, separately, submitted working papers affirming their position that autonomous weapons systems can be used if in compliance with international humanitarian law. Palestine, by contrast, proposed a framework for a new legally binding instrument with prohibitions and regulations. Human Rights Watch in a statement at the GGE meeting observed: “It is time to leave the CCW for another forum that can aim higher, move faster, be bolder, and be more inclusive of countries that are not part of the CCW as well as of civil society.”

The Second Informal Preparatory Meeting for the Ninth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty will take place from May 9-12 in Geneva. The following week, from May 15-19, the CCW GGE on autonomous weapon systems will meet for its second session. On those same dates, the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention will take place in The Hague, the Netherlands.

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