Peter Maurer: "Autonomous weapon systems raise ethical concerns for society"
Statement of Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, on the occasion of the Sixth Review Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) – 13-17 December 2021, Geneva / (Statement recorded 10 December 2021)
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, It is my pleasure to address this Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Convention is a major pillar of international humanitarian law, and it embodies states' commitment to the evolution of law to better protect those affected by armed conflict.
As international humanitarian law in general sets constraints in warfare, so the CCW sets specific constraints on conventional weapons that have – or are foreseen to have – unacceptable consequences, in particular weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or have indiscriminate effects.
The CCW's aim to prevent suffering is reflected in its Protocols covering, among others, mines, incendiary weapons, blinding laser weapons and explosive remnants of war. The ICRC has submitted a working paper to this Conference, with a series of recommendations for your consideration.
These are intended to promote the universalization and to strengthen the implementation of existing Protocols, as well as to address contemporary developments of humanitarian concern, including the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Also included in the paper is a review of developments in science and technology and legal review of new weapons, means and methods of warfare.
In my remarks I will focus on the opportunity that High Contracting Parties have today – as they did at the CCW's inception – to progressively develop international humanitarian law in a way that prevents serious humanitarian risks stemming from new weapons. This is the raison d'être of the Convention, and you have an opportunity to demonstrate its continued relevance by achieving that objective.
During eight years of CCW discussions on autonomous weapon systems, our understanding of the risks – humanitarian, legal and ethical – has deepened. Difficulties in anticipating the effects of these weapons raise the prospect of stark consequences for civilians and combatants hors de combat.
Their expanded use risks falling short of the requirements of international humanitarian law as a result of the loss of human control and judgement in the use of force. Fundamentally, autonomous weapon systems raise ethical concerns for society about substituting human decisions about life and death with sensor, software and machine processes.
The ICRC's view is that an urgent and effective international response is needed to address the serious risks posed by autonomous weapon systems. This Review Conference is a key diplomatic juncture for the work of the CCW, and I call upon you all to rise to the occasion.
Responsible choices about the future of warfare are needed, including clear and legally binding boundaries to prohibit autonomous weapons systems that are unpredictable or designed to target humans, and strict regulation of the design and use of all others.
There is widespread and growing support among states, scientists and technologists and members of civil society for action to ensure that humans remain in control and retain judgement in the use of force. And they must do so in manner that is meaningful and sufficient to faithfully implement their legal obligations and to assume their ethical responsibilities.
In May, I shared with you our view that this requires prohibiting autonomous weapon systems that pose unacceptable risks – unpredictable autonomous weapons and those used to target people directly – while strictly regulating all others to ensure human control sufficient for compliance with international law and ethical acceptability.
We do not have a monopoly on solutions, but we do hope that our recommendations can help you forge agreement on a necessary political response at the international level.
International humanitarian law seeks to preserve a measure of humanity in war. Current trends and rapid development of autonomous weapons – such as plans to target people, especially in towns and cities, in ways that involve reduced human supervision – mean we are in danger of not acting in time to prevent loss of human control over life-and-death decisions.
The ICRC appeals to the High Contracting Parties to this Convention to not let that happen. I invite you to take inspiration from the 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration and "fix[..] the technical limits at which the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirements of humanity."
Prompt and decisive action is needed now. I urge you to set out a path towards the adoption of new legally binding rules through a clear commitment to prohibit certain autonomous weapon systems and to strictly limit the development and use of all others, together with a decision to start negotiations to formalize these boundaries in a new instrument.
Thank you, Mr President; I wish you well for the Conference.
Video of the statement