Towards a Movement position on autonomous weapons

Neil Davison – ICRC

Knut Sverre – Norwegian Red Cross

Over the past decade the humanitarian concerns raised by autonomous weapons have gained increasing attention around the world. We have come a long way since the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement first called on states to “fully consider the potential humanitarian impact” of these weapons in Resolution 7 of the 2013 Council of Delegates. That same year a multilateral process on autonomous weapons got underway in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Over the past few years, states, civil society, the scientific community and the Movement have developed a better shared assessment of the risks stemming from the unrestrained development and use of weapons that select and apply force to targets without human intervention. The risks are serious for those affected by war due to the difficulties in anticipating and limiting the effects of autonomous weapons. Unrestrained development and use of these weapons also generates considerable difficulties with regard to ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law rules on the conduct of hostilities, and raises fundamental ethical concerns about substituting human decisions about life and death with sensor, software and machine processes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have contributed to this assessment through extensive analyses and deepened dialogue with experts in government, militaries and the scientific community, among others. This work informed the ICRC’s recommendation to states in May 2021 that they adopt new international legally binding rules to prohibit “unpredictable” autonomous weapons and those that target human beings directly, and set strict limitations on the design and use of all other autonomous weapons.

The ICRC’s principled and pragmatic proposals on how to effectively address humanitarian, legal and ethical concerns have already gained significant support among many states, as well as civil society and technical experts. Meanwhile, a number of National Societies have been advocating for a timely response to these concerns in sustained dialogue with governments, militaries, scientists, parliamentarians, young people, the private sector and others.

Against this backdrop, the Norwegian Red Cross and the ICRC co-convened a workshop in February, as part of the 2022 Council of Delegates programme, to share experiences and consider the benefits of greater collective action by the Movement to mobilize states to take action, including the value of a Movement position on autonomous weapons.

The workshop demonstrated that there was widespread interest in the issue among National Societies in all geographic regions, and that an impressive array of activities had been carried out in recent years, including exchanges with foreign and defence ministries, participation in government working groups and consultations, public and closed-door round tables, colloquiums and training sessions, as well as public outreach. National Societies are increasingly called upon to participate in policy and legal debates, including in parliamentary hearings.

There is a clear need for the Movement to keep pace with current political and technical developments – essentially bringing Resolution 7 of 2013 up-to-date. Discussions at the workshop suggested that there would be broad support for collective action based on a common Movement position. Collectively, the Movement would be more effective at promoting a principled humanitarian stance, as illustrated by effective Movement action in the past on other weapons of humanitarian concern, practically speaking as well, given that resources could be pooled and approaches coordinated to influence government policy.

Participants at the workshop were left with a sense that there was momentum at the international level towards the adoption of new legally binding rules, and an opportunity for the Movement to help build, nurture and shape this momentum into an effective international response to the humanitarian concerns raised by autonomous weapons.

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