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    HomeNewsRegulating autonomous weapons: “The Caribbean States have an important role to play”

    Regulating autonomous weapons: “The Caribbean States have an important role to play”

    Your Excellencies, distinguished co-speakers, ladies and gentlemen,

    A warm thanks to the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), the Office of the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, Soka Gakkai International and Stop Killer Robots for convening this CARICOM Conference: The Human Impacts of Autonomous Weapons.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) is most encouraged by this gathering of Caribbean States to tackle one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns for the future of armed conflict.

    Through our work related to conflicts around the world, we see that weapon systems with increasingly autonomous functions are being deployed. Many of today’s remote-controlled weapons – armed drones in the air, weaponized robots on the ground, and armed boats or submarines at sea – these could become tomorrow’s autonomous weapons. And this could occur just with a software update or a simple change in military doctrine.

    Over the course of its history, the ICRC has played a significant role in the development of many of the International Humanitarian Law, IHL rules (limiting or prohibiting the use of weapons of concern). By drawing the attention of States and the public to the unacceptable effects of certain weapons on combatants and civilians, the ICRC has helped to create the conditions for the development of the law in this area, to give but a few examples such as when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, as well as anti-personnel mines, explosive remnants of war and cluster munitions.

    Our work in this area, related to the regulation of weapons, is always driven by an ‘effects-based’ approach. This means that we observe the actual, or, in the case of new weapons not yet deployed…the foreseeable effects of the use of weapons – both on civilians and combatants. And we raise our concerns when we see particular weapons that raise questions of legal compliance or present other humanitarian risks and ethical challenges. Our assessment is that autonomous weapons have the potential to do just that.

    The unconstrained use of autonomous weapons risks the loss of control over the use of force. It threatens serious harm for civilians and those no longer fighting. It would also undermine the ability of those fighting to abide by the rules and constraints of international humanitarian law.

    We don’t have to delve too deeply in our experience to realize the harm to civilians caused by weapons whose effects cannot be adequately controlled. In fact, this has been one of the primary humanitarian drivers for prohibitions and restrictions on certain conventional weapons. The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention is a good example, and that treaty has been universally ratified across CARICOM Member States.

    Autonomous weapons also pose fundamental challenge to our values, and to our shared humanity. Ethically, should we tolerate a world in which conscious decisions about human life are replaced with machine calculations? Are we willing to accept the deployment of weapons that fire themselves, triggered by artificial intelligence software that writes itself?

    The use of increasingly autonomous weapons in armed conflicts means these questions are no longer academic. They represent an urgent humanitarian priority today, and States must act now to address them through the negotiation of new legally binding international rules on autonomous weapons.

    In the ICRC’s view, these rules should prohibit unpredictable autonomous weapons, where the system’s effects cannot be sufficiently understood, predicted, and explained.

    Equally important, is a prohibition of autonomous weapons designed or used to target humans directly. Ethically speaking, anti-personnel autonomous weapons are unacceptable. They simultaneously undermine the human agency of those using force and the human dignity of those it is used against. From a legal perspective, in our view, it is difficult to envisage realistic combat situations where the use of autonomous weapons against persons would not pose a significant risk of violations of international humanitarian law.

    These two prohibitions will need to be accompanied by strict constraints on the design and use of other autonomous weapons, for example: only using them against clearly defined military objects – such as missiles, tanks or military aircraft – in situations where civilians are not present, with constraints on geographical scope, duration and scale of use, while ensuring effective human supervision, timely intervention and deactivation.

    What is needed now is principled political leadership to effectively address these concerns at the international level and craft an effective international response. Here, I believe, the Caribbean States have an important role to play. As the ICRC´s Director for the Americas, I have followed very closely the many developments in the Americas region this year, from the Belén Communiqué to the OAS General Assembly resolution, from the SICA communiqué to the PARLACEN resolution.

    All these efforts demonstrate commitment and leadership from the countries in the region to address the humanitarian, legal and ethical concerns posed by autonomous weapons.

    I wish you all the best for this very important conference, for your discussions and decisions and I urge you to agree a strong regional declaration by Caribbean States to negotiate and adopt a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons. And in line with its recognized expertise and humanitarian mandate, the ICRC stands ready to support you as a partner in all efforts to this end.

    Thank you once again to the organizers of the conference, to the CARICOM states and in particular to our hosts, the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

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