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Unregulated Autonomous Weapons Systems Pose Risk to Africa

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio delivers the keynote address at the inaugural African regional conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems.
Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone warns of a new arms race that could divert important resources away from peacebuilding and sustainable development.

GENEVA, Jun 4 2024 (IPS) - UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on countries to conclude by 2026 negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS).

In response, Sierra Leone in April 2024 hosted a conference of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) member states to discuss challenges associated with AWS.

In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Dr. Lansana Gberie, the chief organizer of the conference, on behalf of the Government of Sierra Leone, discusses the outcomes and the ramifications of AWS proliferation for Africa.

Here are excerpts:

Dr. Lansana Gberie, Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and the chief organizer of the conference on behalf of the Government of Sierra Leone.

Q: What exactly are Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS), and how are they different from conventional weapons?

Autonomous weapons are new, very potent weapons designed to select, target, and engage without any meaningful human intervention. The difference with conventional weapons is simple: the human factor.

Remember, the two atomic bombs that devastated Japanese cities during WWII were dropped by human beings who carefully selected the targets. They caused enormous carnage, but accountability could be easily assigned for their use.

Autonomous weapons make decisions to kill or destroy targets without a human being participating in the process. Accountability, and therefore reckoning, for such a grave decision becomes difficult.

Q: What are your views regarding the urgency expressed by the UN Secretary-General for international action on AWS?

That is a call that we fully support. As you know, Mr. Guterres made the call in a joint statement with Ms. Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on October 5, 2023. He referred to lethal AWS as morally repugnant and politically unacceptable, calling for their prohibition under international law.

Q: Why should global attention be directed towards the proliferation of AWS?

There are ethical, legal, and practical reasons why the world must focus on this issue now. Machines and algorithms should not make life and death decisions, and this is what autonomous weapons are designed to do. This is ethically appalling.

There is also a fundamental legal aspect: if machines are to make life and death decisions in warfare, who can be held accountable for potential war crimes, extrajudicial killings, and unlawful use of weaponry?

Autonomous weapons systems present tremendous global security risks: they raise the risk of unintended escalation and flash wars, and they lower the threshold for waging war. They are easy to proliferate and could easily be used as weapons of mass destruction for targeted killings, by both state and non-state actors.

Q: What factors contribute to the rising popularity of AWS as military assets?

They are very convenient. Military powers are often risk-averse—they do not want to take large casualties themselves but would like to inflict them on their enemies. This is what AWS will do for them. They leave the actual target decisions to machines. That, too, is convenient.

Accountability for decisions that they set in place becomes difficult in a legal sense. Human beings must remain accountable for the conduct of wars, including targeting decisions. Autonomous weapons systems increase the risk of civilian casualties on a massive scale.

Q: How does the spread of AWS affect Africa?

We are a vulnerable region. Larger military powers are investing in technologies that reduce human control. These dynamics benefit weapons manufacturers and draw important resources away from peacebuilding and sustainable development. The use of AWS could increase the capacity of highly militarized countries to inflict violence with impunity.

By calling for a new international legally binding agreement on AWS, ECOWAS member states hope to prevent the escalation of military dominance by the most militarized countries.

Q: How might African countries prevent the spread of these weapons?

Following the UN Secretary-General’s call, there is now strong international support from over 115 states for starting negotiations on a treaty. The ECOWAS conference, held in Freetown on 17-18 April 2024 and hosted by President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, was a response to a UN General Assembly resolution on lethal autonomous weapons systems adopted on December 22, 2023. This resolution supports the Secretary-General’s call.

The communiqué issued at the end of the conference affirmed the region’s collective support for negotiations of a legally binding instrument to prohibit autonomous weapons without meaningful human control.

Q: How do events like the conference in Freetown contribute to the potential for an AWS treaty?

Significantly. the Freetown ECOWAS conference followed other regional conferences around the world focused on raising awareness of the problem and forging a common regional approach in support of a legally binding agreement on AWS. Costa Rica held one, and so did the Philippines. There was one in the Caribbean, held in Trinidad and Tobago.

Remember that not every ECOWAS member state is party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) or has participated in the global discussions around AWS. The Freetown conference brought these countries into that conversation.

Q: Why is Sierra Leone a leader in the advocacy efforts for a treaty on AWS?

As you know, Sierra Leone is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. We are also a member of the African Union Peace and Security Council.

President Bio said at the opening of the conference in Freetown that Sierra Leone is deeply committed to safeguarding peace and security in our region. We understand the destabilizing effects of military conflicts that can last for generations. We have become a champion on global arms control and disarmament issues.

The President began his career as a military officer and was among the first batch of peacekeepers sent to Liberia amidst that country’s civil war in the early 1990s. He understands that if we ignore the issue of autonomous weapons in our backyard, we do so at our own peril.

Q: What are the main challenges and complexities involved in negotiating a legally binding instrument to regulate AWS, considering the diverse perspectives and interests of different countries?

All international treaties, particularly on arms, tend to be complex; and negotiations leading to them can be prolonged and difficult. We often hear that a treaty would be ineffective if the countries using AWS do not sign up to them. But with international law, accountability can be determined, whether states are parties or not.

That carries an important moral and practical weight. A majority of countries support a treaty on AWS. Let’s not forget that. But there are powerful countries and interests opposed to such negotiations even starting. That should not discourage the majority. We must all strive to avoid an arms race in this respect.

Source: Africa Renewal, United Nations

IPS UN Bureau


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