A Better Path to a Treaty Banning ‘Killer Robots’ Has Just Been Cleared

A Better Path to a Treaty Banning ‘Killer Robots’ Has Just Been Cleared
People take part in a demonstration to ban killer robots in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, March 21, 2019 (dpa photo by Wolfgang Kumm via AP Images).

By some media accounts, the recent Convention on Conventional Weapons Review Conference was a colossal disappointment for advocates of a treaty ban on autonomous weapons systems. After 10 years of calls for a ban on so-called killer robots—including powerful arguments against their use from scientists, scholars, engineers, Nobel laureates and a wide-ranging network of civil society organizations—governments at the RevCon, as the conference is known to participants, could come up with little more than an agreement to keep talking. Fortune magazine reported that “the world just blew a major opportunity.”

In reality, however, the outcome at the RevCon is neither surprising nor troubling. Contrary to some arguments, it will actually benefit the campaigners against killer robots, rather than deal them a blow. In fact, the only real surprise here is that killer robots are still being discussed at all in the context of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, or CCW, since other venues are more conducive to rapid, robust norm-building to prohibit weaponized AI.

The CCW is a multilateral treaty designed to regulate weapons deemed to be inhumane. Every five years, state parties to the treaty meet in Geneva to discuss whether it should be updated, and in theory it is possible to address certain new or newly problematic weapons through adding an Additional Protocol to the treaty. 

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