Curse or blessing? This year’s UN debate on LAWS mostly took place virtually. | Photo: flickr, (c) Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, August 2018.

Digital diplomacy: The debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems in Geneva continues under unprecedented circumstances

Despite the global Covid-19 pandemic, the debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems within the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) at the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva, which has been going on since 2014, took place last week. With only a handful of diplomats present, the meeting was held in a hybrid format. While the pandemic and its restrictions might have been a factor that hampered progress in the debate, it went along better than many had expected. However, there were hardly any new arguments in the debate and the prospects of a regulation of LAWS did not really increase. Now is the time to make sure the deliberations build more substance because it should be in every state’s interest to avoid a technological arms race.


Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are one of the most widely debated emerging technologies in the military field. They are being compared to gunpowder and nuclear weapons in terms of their revolutionary potential to change the nature of warfare. While many fear they will possess similar threatening capabilities, there is not even consensus on a definition of LAWS yet. However, the question is whether a comprehensive definition is even necessary or if the definition argument is used as a pretext to stall the debate. Another open question concerns the nature and scope of a regulatory framework. In the meantime, technological progress and development in the area of LAWS is accelerating and might present the discussions with a fait accompli. To tackle these issues, LAWS have been under scrutiny for over a decade now – first by concerned academics in 2010, then taken up by civil society and non-governmental organizations who formed the international  Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in 2012. Finally, the possible implications of LAWS were addressed by states in the UN CCW. In 2014 informal meetings of experts were set up to conduct a first exchange and gain a better understanding of the matter. From 2017 on the meetings were formalized through a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), where all state parties to the CCW have been further exploring the subject. For this and next year the group has received the mandate to come up with consensus recommendations for the 2021 Review Conference of the CCW. While the process is open-ended, i.e. no outcome is prejudged, civil society has from the beginning called for a legally binding ban of LAWS. This call is supported by 30 states while others strive for a political declaration or other non-binding instruments. The CCW process calls for an adoption of any outcome by consensus, yet so far this has not emerged. To make matters even more complicated, the current global pandemic has led to the postponement of the meeting and uncertainties about the proceedings until the very last minute. Fortunately, the meeting was able to convene from the 21st to the 25th of September, albeit under unprecedented conditions.

Digital diplomacy and a modified meeting

This year, the concept of digital diplomacy has become more important than ever before. Under the impressions of the global Covid-19 pandemic, all in-person meetings at the United Nations were cancelled or postponed for weeks or months. The GGE on LAWS suffered the same fate but was finally able to proceed in a hybrid format that highly benefitted from digital diplomacy. Digital diplomacy, the use of digital technologies in support of diplomatic objective, made it possible to convene the CCW meeting, for the first time with virtual participation. The hybrid format consisted of only one representative per delegation in the room and others connected via video conference. Some delegations even opted to solely partake virtually.

While it took a global pandemic for international diplomacy to embrace digital and virtual formats, there are serious concerns that speak against digital diplomacy in a format like the GGE. Many countries were missing from the debate, with only 56 out of the 125 High Contracting Parties to the CCW participating in the meeting. Russia, one of the biggest opponents of a legally binding regulation of LAWS, was missing from the meeting, mainly because they did not support the formalities of the proceedings. Without the backing of Russia as a key player, any progress at the GGE could be stalled. Furthermore, a number of concerns relating to the inclusiveness and transparency of the meeting were expressed. Some delegations argued that countries were unable to participate in the hybrid meeting because of the digital divide and it disproportionally disadvantaged delegations from the Global South (i.e. South Africa was the only country from sub-Saharan Africa to participate in the meetings). This could negatively affect the inclusivity and fairness of the proceedings and might challenge the outcome of the meeting.

Another aspect that was frequently mentioned that did have a negative effect on the proceedings with many delegations connected virtually is the time difference between Geneva and the rest of the world. This means that some countries could not participate if they didn’t have a delegation in the room because it was too early or too late. A bigger issue, however, concerns the coordination between delegations and their capitals. With only one delegate in the room, it was even more important that they were provided with the possibility to connect with the respective experts outside of the meeting room. This proved rather difficult as some delegations pointed out but is extremely important to guarantee the political backing of any decisions made in the room. While digital diplomacy can offer more inclusion and transparency not only for state parties but also for the public (such as through the use of social media), it also bears certain shortcomings that cannot be underestimated. As the proceedings last week have shown, the inclusiveness of meetings is one of the most important points to consider for future digital diplomatic formats.

Recurring themes and only little new pathways

The debate in the GGE on LAWS last week has shown that despite unprecedented circumstances the arguments and themes put forward by states are far from unexpected. The discussions were mostly centered on national commentaries that states provided ahead of the meeting on the eleven Guiding Principles that were adopted in 2019. The national commentaries proved to be an important exercise for states to elaborate on their understanding of the Guiding Principles and to provide grounds for talks on commonalities and diverging interpretations. While the debates were indeed useful to distil varying strands of interpretation and find common ground to work on, observers and civil-society actors criticized that there wasn’t substantial progress in the debate and most arguments have been the same for years.

At the forefront of deliberations are legal concerns regarding the use of LAWS, predominantly whether they can adhere to international humanitarian law (IHL) and thus discriminate between civilians and combatants. Given that the CCW as a forum is built on IHL, legal arguments are obviously at its core. Yet, as academics, civil society, and a number of states have pointed out, the focus on legal arguments skews the debate and omits the most urgent concerns: namely ethical as well as security and stability related issues arising out of the existence, not only the use of LAWS. Very few countries reiterated the problematic impact of LAWS on international peace and security as well as regional stability. And only the so-called Arab Group pointed to the danger of proliferation and the risks of these weapons technologies ending up in the hands of non-state actors. These factors could have the potential to open up new pathways in the debate and offer new perspectives to promote progress. Yet, the debate focused on recurring themes, such as the apparent need for a global definition of LAWS.

One main theme was the issue of the human element in the use of force. To circumvent the problem of a non-existing agreed upon definition of LAWS, the concept of meaningful human control (MHC) as a new principle to IHL had been proposed by NGOs a few years back. This concept sees the human as the central element in the critical functions of autonomy, especially targeting decisions and the use of lethal force. However, as state parties could not agree on adopting this concept, it was reframed as human-machine interaction which leaves a lot of leeway for interpretation. Opponents of a legally binding prohibition of LAWS refer to either command and operator responsibility, national accountability measures or human judgement. It seems likely that many countries don’t want to refer to a universal norm of human control as a regulatory measure for LAWS but rather focus on national guidelines, doctrines and frameworks. If there is not even consensus on the wording and specifics on the human element in the use of force, the prospects for regulation are rather dim.

How to move forward from here?

Despite little progress in this area, the Chair of this year’s meeting, Ljupčo Jivan Gjorgjinski, was very deliberate in identifying common ground to work on. He identified three aspects in which more expertise was necessary and where substantive and productive work can be produced until the next meeting: legal, technological and military implications of LAWS. While it seems important to gain more insight into all possible ramifications of emerging technologies, especially since many of their capabilities are subject to future developments, there seems to be little substantive progress stemming from this meeting. Still, the mandate of the GGE gives time until next year to come up with consensus recommendations concerning LAWS.

Civil society has made it clear that they are unsatisfied with the process and might continue with negotiations outside of the CCW if the talks don’t move forward. While it is obvious that previous civil society engagements with weapons regulations in the CCW were successful only after they were taken out of the forum (anti-personnel landmines and cluster munition), it is far from certain that the same will happen in the area of LAWS. What is really needed now, are engaged delegations that can convince others, especially those at the forefront of technological development, that it is in their best interest to prevent an arms race and international destabilization. Since a complete prohibition of LAWS does not seem very realistic at this point, any framework that the GGE agrees on must address these security-related concerns in addition to the humanitarian and ethical considerations. States must realize that as with nuclear weapons, the mere existence of these weapons systems seriously endangers their own national security even if they might never be used.

Anna-Katharina Ferl

Anna-Katharina Ferl

Anna-Katharina Ferl ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ bei PRIF. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind autonome Waffensysteme, Rüstungskontrolle sowie internationale Normen. // Anna-Katharina Ferl is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF’s “International Security” research department. Her research interest focuses on autonomous weapons systems, arms control as well as international norms. | Twitter: @AnnaKFerl

Anna-Katharina Ferl

Anna-Katharina Ferl ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“ bei PRIF. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind autonome Waffensysteme, Rüstungskontrolle sowie internationale Normen. // Anna-Katharina Ferl is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF’s “International Security” research department. Her research interest focuses on autonomous weapons systems, arms control as well as international norms. | Twitter: @AnnaKFerl

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