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The Role of ICRAC in the Arms Trade Treaty Negotiations

Posted on 09 April 2013 by mbolton

546545-armstreatyLast week the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to adopt the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which will aim to constrain the flow of conventional weapons to states and organizations that threaten peace and security or engage in gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Several members of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC)Wim Zwijnenburg of IKV Pax Christi, Thomas Nash and Richard Moyes of Article 36 and Matthew Bolton of Pace University New York City – were engaged in supporting the advocacy work of Control Arms, the global civil society coalition campaigning for a ‘bulletproof’ treaty.

Pushing states to develop text that would cover emerging weapons technologies was a particular emphasis of ICRAC members’ lobbying at the July 2012 and March 2013 Diplomatic Conferences. Many campaigners and diplomats were concerned that the draft treaty did not include specific provisions for ‘unmanned’ weapons, such as aerial drones, or robotic systems that have ‘dual uses.’ A recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) raised concerns that the text “looks dangerously likely to be a relic before it ever comes into force.”


Drawing on technical advice from other ICRAC members, Zwijnenburg and Bolton wrote a policy brief titled “Futureproofing the Draft Arms Trade Treaty” that called on states to make five “critical changes” to the text “in order to cover the emerging class of robotic, ‘unmanned’ and autonomous weapons.” The paper was distributed widely in the conference and online to governments and civil society organizations and was reprinted in Reaching Critical Will’s widely read ATT Monitor newsletter (pp. 3-4). The phrase “futureproofing” caught on and was soon being used widely by Control Arms campaigners, Amnesty International and even the representative of the Holy See.

Not all of the changes suggested in Zwijnenburg and Bolton’s “Futureproofing” paper were made in the final treaty text and it would be disingenuous to overstate ICRAC’s impact. However, by helping to shape and frame the conversation, the policy brief, amplified by Control Arms lobbying, contributed to efforts that changed the treaty text to allow for the future conferences of States Parties to the treaty to review “developments in the field of conventional arms” (Article 17) and adopt amendments by three-quarters vote instead of consensus (Article 20). This means that activists and advocacy organizations will be able to push states to amend the treaty to address developing new weapons technologies. This new text has essentially created a forum in which ICRAC and other stakeholders concerned about emerging weapons technologies can press their case in the future.

What Next?

The next push for campaigners will be to make sure states sign and ratify the ATT, to make it enter into force as quickly as possible. Another important area for advocacy will be to push for a broadening of the categories used by the UN Register of Conventional Weapons. The ATT relies on these categories, which at the moment do not explicitly cover many types of robotic weapons. If civil society can push for states to include unmanned armed systems in this register before the treaty enters into force, the treaty will actually cover a broader scope of weapons.

While the ATT and broadening the UN Register have not been the primary focus of ICRAC’s advocacy, they are establishing important precedents and norms that provide important foundations for the regulation of robotic weapons. Indeed, passing the treaty in a majority vote in the UN General Assembly, instead of consensus, has opened the possibility of developing arms control instruments with high standards, instead of the lowest common denominator.

The ATT is not really a disarmament treaty – it is more of an amalgamation of humanitarian and trade law. Even if it works well, it will only regulate the flows of weapons, not the kind of weapons in circulation. As a result, those who are concerned about the trends toward ‘autonomy’ in robotic weapons, threatening to reduce direct human control over killing, cannot rely on the ATT to prevent this dangerous possibility. This is one of many reasons why ICRAC is part of a growing number of NGOs and faith groups calling for a specific on ban fully autonomous armed robots – “killer robots.”

ICRAC is an international committee of experts in robotics technology, robot ethics, international relations, international security, arms control, international humanitarian law, human rights law, and public campaigns, concerned about the pressing dangers that military robots pose to peace and international security and to civilians in war.

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Debating Proposals for a Possible International Convention on Robotic Weapons

Posted on 03 October 2012 by mbolton

In the last few years there have been increasing calls for a global regulatory framework to govern robotic weapons. Just yesterday, influential counter-terrorism correspondent Peter Bergen called for a treaty to manage and mitigate drone proliferation. Earlier this year, along with Thomas Nash and Richard Moyes of the advocacy group Article 36, I called for a complete ban on autonomous armed robots, saying “Decisions to kill and injure should not be made by machines and, even if at times it will be imperfect, the distinction between military and civilian is a determination for human beings to make.” More conservative commentators have also recognized the need for some normative framework for robotic weapons. In 2011, an interdisciplinary group of legal, security and defense intellectuals from Consortium on Emerging Technologies, Military Operations, and National Security (CETMONS), argued in a paper for the Columbia Science and Technology Review that:

Enough concern and information exists now to consider appropriate governance models in a timely and proactive manner; yet, the time to take action is short before the current window of opportunity to design a relevant governance or oversight system for LARs [Lethal Autonomous Robotics] closes.

The 2009 statement by International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), which called for bans on autonomous weapons, the arming of robotic weapons with nuclear arms and the deployment of armed robots in space is probably one of the most developed proposals I have seen. As a member of ICRAC, I have endorsed this statement. However, I have been considering ways to flesh out the ICRAC proposal with further provisions building on the precedents of the landmine and cluster munition treaties, as well as the draft Arms Trade Treaty (currently still being negotiated) and the broader corpus of international humanitarian law governing conduct in war.

Yesterday, I published an article (for Global Policy’s online Comment & Opinion section) and a post on my blog outlining possible provisions for an International Convention on Robotic Weapons. I am a political scientist, not a lawyer or roboticist, so my purpose in doing this is to provoke discussion and dialogue, not to pin down precise language. Moreover, while I have used the ICRAC statement as a foundation, this is my own personal adaptation and expansion of it and so should not be interpreted as an institutional position of ICRAC. Following discussions since yesterday, I have consolidated my proposed provisions into a revised list:

A. Outright Bans on Robotic Weapons Incapable of Discriminating Between Combatants and Non-Combatants and/or that Cause Disproportionate Harm

  1. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of armed autonomous unmanned systems that make decisions to kill without a ‘human-in-the-loop’;
  2. Prohibition of arming robotic, particularly ‘unmanned’, systems with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, blinding lasers, landmines, cluster munitions or other weapons prohibited by international humanitarian norms.

B. Restrictions on Deployment and Targeting to Ensure Discrimination and Proportionality and Limit Aggressive Deployment

  1. Limitations on the development, deployment and use of robotic systems to ensure discrimination and proportionality in targeting, prevent civilian casualties and limit psycho-social harm;
  2. Prohibition of robotic deployment of explosive violence in populated areas;
  3. Limitations on the range and weapons carried by remotely-operated ‘unmanned’ systems and on their deployment in postures threatening to other states;
  4. Regulation of the use of so-called ‘less-lethal’, ‘non-lethal’ or ‘pain’ weapons by robotic systems;
  5. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of robot space weapons.

C. Restrictions on the Import, Export, Trade, Transshipment, Brokering and Transfer of Robotic Weapons

  1. Prohibition of the trade or transfer of robotic weapons, parts, components, related technologies and munitions, to countries and armed groups that commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law;
  2. Transparent reporting on the trade and transfer of robotic weapons.

D. International Cooperation in the Mitigation of the Harm Caused by Robotic Weapons

  1. International cooperation in the reconstruction of communities damaged by robotic weapons;
  2. Recognition of the rights of survivors of robotic weapon violence and international cooperation in the provision of victim assistance;
  3. National and international mechanisms for recording the casualties of robotic weapon violence;
  4. National reporting on treaty implementation;
  5. International cooperation on treaty implementation, including technical assistance.

Do you think a treaty is needed to govern drones and other robotic weapons? What would such a treaty cover? How would it be monitored and enforced? On reading my proposal, a friend asked me whether it makes more sense to focus on the banning and circumscribing the effects of weapons (indiscriminate and disproportionate harm) rather than types of weapons (like robotic weapons, landmines, cluster munitions, etc.). What do you think? 

Dr. Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Pace University (Note that the views expressed here are the author’s alone and have not been endorsed by the International Committee for Robot Arms Control).

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