This article is the English version of : Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer, « Diplomatie des armes autonomes : les débats de Genève », published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 81, Issue 3, 2016.

Autonomous weapon systems – “Killer robots” in the popular culture – are weapon systems that can select and attack targets without human intervention. The first informal experts’ meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) was organized in 2014 at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, on the initiative of France, which also presided over the meeting. The last of these annual meetings took place April 11–15, 2016, under German presidency for the second consecutive year. It confirmed the growing interest in the subject from states and civil society: 95 states participated in the debates, alongside several UN institutions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), numerous NGOs from around the world, and 34 international experts (compared to 90 states and 30 experts in April 2015, and 87 state and 18 experts in May 2014).

At this meeting states for the first time unanimously adopted general recommendations for the fifth CCW Review Conference, which will take place December 12–16, 2016. The recommendations included the creation of a Governmental Group of Experts (GGE) beginning in 2017, cementing the transition from informal meetings (2014–2016) to a formal process.

Three years of meetings have left civil society and several states increasingly impatient, and so this year there was a clear desire to achieve results. Already anti-LAWS NGOs had indicated that they would no longer be fooled by certain states’ delaying strategies, which have been attempting to drag out the subject of LAWS at the CCW, where the consensus-based decision-making allows them to exert a level of control, rather than meaningfully advancing the discussion.

In particular, there was a growing desire to move forward without resolving all the conceptual problems, against the wishes of states like China, which suggested that “first, we must know what autonomy means” before being able to discuss LAWS. Canada’s statement that it “does not find it useful to debate the meaning of autonomy out of context” captured the wishes of many states to move toward “more concrete” matters.

The April 2016 meeting confirmed that the main topics of discussion have remained unchanged over the last three years, namely, issues of definition, human control, responsibility, and legal review. Rather than going to the root of these questions, this paper will address the procedure, negotiations, the balance of power, and generally the diplomatic dimension of the last round of Geneva debates.

What are we talking about ?

Unlike previous years, this time the question was less the definition of LAWS or autonomy but rather of whether it was even necessary to define them. The delegations initially divided themselves into two camps: those who made the definition a prerequisite condition for any discussion (which was interpreted by others, particularly civil society, as a way of blocking discussion), and those who agreed to leave the definition until later. A consensus was reached that an exhaustive and final definition at this stage was impossible, but that nevertheless a provisional working definition should be used to move discussions forward.

Analyzing definitions in disarmament treaties supports this gradual approach: the definitions, which are not always based on the same criteria (effects, functions, usage, or possible targets of the weapons), are generally among the very last issues to be settled. However, the case of LAWS is special, which limits the relevance of such precedents. As Brazil usefully recalled, this time the weapon being defined does not yet exist. The weapons previously prohibited had existed for decades and their effects were perfectly known. They could therefore be banned without a precise definition. The absence of shared experience or understanding make LAWS different. […]

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