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.

Matthew Bolton is associate professor of political science at Pace University in New York City. He is an expert on global peace and security policy, focusing on multilateral disarmament and arms control policymaking processes. He has a PhD in Government and Master's in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. Since 2014, Bolton has worked on the UN and New York City advocacy of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Bolton has published five books, including Political Minefields (I.B. Tauris) and Imagining Disarmament, Enchanting International Relations (Palgrave Pivot).

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