This post originally appeared on the Disarmament Dialogue blog.

The Stop Killer Robots campaign’s recent global meeting in San José, Costa Rica, highlighted the campaign’s vision for a new international legal instrument on autonomous weapons systems, what it will take to get there, and how the campaign has progressed to reach this point. The Digital Dehumanization Conference, the campaign’s first global meeting since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, convened campaigners from around the world from February 20-22.

I participated in the Stop Killer Robots global meeting, the fourth of its kind, as a student in International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Harvard Law School. Prior to attending law school, I was an intern and then associate in Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, and have thus engaged in Stop Killer Robots campaign activities during various periods for more than six years. The meeting provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the campaign, particularly how the campaign has grown, its messaging has evolved, and the political landscape has changed over the past year and a half.

Dochety and Kantack standing in front of Digital Dehumanization conference banner.
Bonnie Docherty (left) of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law’s IHRC and Jacqulyn Kantack, the author, at the Digital Dehumanization Conference in San José, Costa Rica.

Autonomous weapons systems are systems that would select and engage targets based on sensor processing rather than human inputs. Over the past decade, autonomous weapons systems have become a subject of legal, ethical, accountability, and security concern for states, with most agreeing that some degree of legally binding regulation is needed.

The Stop Killer Robots meeting took place in advance of a two-day regional government conference on autonomous weapons outside San José. The conference, organized by the government of Costa Rica and nongovernmental organization FUNPADEM, brought together nearly every state from Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 13 observer states and civil society groups. Costa Rica is the first country to host a regional meeting on this topic. At the conclusion of the conference, participating states adopted the landmark Belén Communiqué, committing to “collaborate to promote the urgent negotiation of an international legally binding instrument, with prohibitions and regulations with regard to autonomy in weapons systems.”

The week in Costa Rica made clear how much support Stop Killer Robots has garnered for its mission. A decade after the campaign was publicly launched, more than 200 organizations from 70 countries have joined. Representatives of many of them attended the civil society meeting in San José. In addition, due in large part to the campaign’s efforts, 86 states now embrace the campaign’s call for a legally binding instrument with prohibitions and regulations on autonomous weapons systems.

Partnerships within civil society and between civil society and states have facilitated much of the progress that has occurred on the issue of autonomous weapons. For example, the campaign invited Costa Rican Vice-Minister of Multilateral Affairs Christian Guillermet-Fernandez, along with representatives from several states, to attend the global meeting’s concluding session. I appreciated Vice-Minister Guillermet-Fernandez’s dialogue with campaign members regarding the commitment of Costa Rica and the Latin American region to address the problems of autonomous weapons and some of the political challenges that lie ahead. In turn, Costa Rica ensured nongovernmental and international organizations could participate in the government meeting by making statements and engaging as panelists.  

As I also observed, Stop Killer Robots has refined and expanded its messaging. Initially it focused on banning systems that would by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control. While it still calls for prohibiting these systems’ development, production, and use, it has added a call for prohibiting autonomous weapons systems that target people. The latter undermine human dignity because they would reduce humans to data points and are vulnerable to algorithmic bias. To avoid loopholes, the campaign further recommends regulations that ensure meaningful human control is maintained over all autonomous weapons systems not covered by the prohibitions. As was clear from the name of its global conference, the campaign has recently started framing its concerns as part of “digital dehumanization,” “a process in which human beings are reduced to data points that are then used to make decisions and/or take actions that negatively affect their lives.” While digital dehumanization poses challenges in many areas of society, it is of particular concern in the context of weaponized machines.

Despite these developments, the campaign’s core messaging has remained, and some earlier themes, such as a concern for human rights, are resurging. The problem of autonomous weapons systems rose to the international stage in 2013 when Christof Heyns, then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council warning of the dangers of this emerging technology and calling for a moratorium on its development. Campaign members similarly highlighted the systems’ human rights implications, including during law enforcement operations. For example, in their 2014 report Shaking the Foundations, Human Rights Watch, then campaign coordinator, and IHRC found the systems would “violate the foundational rights to life and a remedy” and threaten to “undermine the underlying principle of human dignity.” While some states have continued to raise human rights concerns, since autonomous weapons systems have primarily been addressed under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), international humanitarian law issues have dominated discussions. The Human Rights Council, however, adopted a resolution in October 2022 that “not[ed] that new and emerging technologies in the military domain may … reproduce and exacerbate existing patterns of structural discrimination, marginalization, social inequalities, stereotypes and bias and create unpredictability of outcomes.” The Stop Killer Robots campaign is also bringing human rights back to the forefront and dedicated a session at the Digital Dehumanization Conference to exploring the human rights threats posed by emerging technologies and autonomous weapons systems in particular.

With so many states in agreement about the need for a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems, it is time for them to consider how and where to undertake negotiations. At the global civil society meeting, Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and lecturer on law at IHRC, presented the findings of a recent report, An Agenda for Action, that examines the possible forums for pursuing a treaty.  The joint Human Rights Watch-IHRC publication discusses the pitfalls of consensus-based decision making at the CCW and the benefits of launching negotiations either within the framework of the UN General Assembly or as a standalone process. Docherty also discussed highlights from the report in her presentation to the government meeting.

Though discussions in the CCW have stagnated, momentum for a new treaty is building. As was evident from my week in San José, more states are on board than ever before, and key leaders, such as Costa Rica, are emerging. Regardless of the forum, Stop Killer Robots will be there to support states in every step of the negotiation process.