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  • Debriefing the Freetown and Vienna AWS conferences, our 'overheard this month' recap, recent media coverage and headlines, and more.

Debriefing the Freetown and Vienna AWS conferences, our 'overheard this month' recap, recent media coverage and headlines, and more.

This is Anna Hehir, FLI’s Lead on Military AI, and Maggie Munro, Communications Strategist, here with the second edition of The Autonomous Weapons Newsletter. We’re excited to bring you the news on autonomous weapons systems (AWS) at a pivotal moment, as the world comes to terms with whether algorithms should make life and death decisions (spoiler alert: most people are terrified).

With this monthly publication, we’re keeping our audience - primarily consisting of policymakers, journalists, and diplomats - up-to-date on the autonomous weapons space, covering policymaking efforts, weapons systems technology, and more.

That being said, if you have no idea what we’re talking about, check out our starter guide on the topic.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, please be sure to subscribe and share as widely as possible.

Conference Crescendo

We’re fresh off a month living out of our suitcases after attending two milestone conferences on autonomous weapons: the Freetown Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional conference hosted by Sierra Leone from April 17-18, and the Vienna Conference hosted by Austria last week from April 29-30.


Opening the Freetown Conference

Anna and FLI’s Director of Policy Mark Brakel were on the ground in Freetown, and had a blast. As a country with its own visceral and painful history of civil war, Sierra Leone’s commitment to protecting peace and security was on sheer display as it successfully convened ECOWAS states to reach a common regional position in support of a treaty.

Foreign Ministers, military officials, diplomats, experts, and civil society from across West Africa were present to discuss AWS challenges unique to the region, including proliferation, use by non-state actors in the Sahel, and biased data sets trained mainly on pictures of ethnically Caucasian soldiers.

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio set the bar high in his notably strong keynote address, asserting that West-African states “must always strive to proactively engage in shaping global norms and not be mere recipients, targets or beneficiaries of them”.

The legacy of the first regional conference on AWS in Costa Rica was palpable, as diplomats and experts drew inspiration from the Belen Communiqué and the regional unity demonstrated by Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sierra Leone doesn’t seem to be dropping the leadership baton anytime soon, with their Foreign Minister Kabba also making an appearance at Vienna. We look forward to seeing them continue to lead the global discussion on autonomous weapons both in New York and Geneva.


Calm before the storm at Hofburg Palace

In Vienna, 1,000+ (!) attendees from civil society, academia, media, and industry joined 144 states at the spectacular Hofburg Palace for the first ever state-led global conference on AWS. We joined them for two days of panels, side events, and hallway chats about the need for an international legally-binding instrument (you’d be amazed at how many times this term can be repeated in just two days).

It was energizing to see the incredible momentum - captured by the sheer scale of the conference alone, truly a sight to see - and the widespread agreement on the need for a treaty. Breaking free from the thematic constraints of the Geneva-based Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), we saw discussions cover oft-ignored topics such as the risk of genocide, systems that target humans, proliferation, and how deterrence theory may fail if these weapons spread to every imaginable actor.

Much of the ‘meat’ of the discussions focused on how we get to an agreement. Many experts and stakeholders on stage and in the corridors called for treaty negotiations to be opened by way of a simple majority vote at the UN General Assembly, in order to escape vetoes by Russia and others in the CCW (for more on this dynamic, see the last edition of our newsletter).

Surrounded by calls for a legally-binding treaty, the anxiety levels of some countries were on the rise and evident in their national statements. Several pretzel-shaped assertions were made: ‘Opening treaty negotiations at UNGA would be an unhelpful parallel process, unlike our own parallel political declaration that everyone should join’, as well as ‘A treaty negotiated at UNGA would be less inclusive than at the CCW’. Given that the UN General Assembly counts 193 members versus only 127 in the CCW, the logic here eludes us. To the surprise of many, Norway did not (yet?) live up to its historical leadership in disarmament and, among a high-level panel of Foreign Ministers, invoked a position similar to Russia’s: that existing international humanitarian law is sufficient to address autonomous weapons.

Another key point from many panellists was that states must avoid getting caught in the weeds on definitions around autonomous weapons systems. As one expert suggested, the priority must be “stipulating the norm” instead of debating definitions. The obvious parallel is the Biological Weapons Convention, which is highly effective despite not providing a definition of bioweapons.

Wrapping up two jam-packed days, Austrian Ambassador Alexander Kmentt delivered the pièce de résistance, the Chair’s Summary of the conference. This document will help shape the UN Secretary General António Guterres’ response to the UNGA resolution on AWS adopted last year. Along with submitting their own input to the UNSG, states are now encouraged to endorse this document. See “Input Requested” below for more details on this.

Want even more detail on what went on at Vienna? Check out the full readout over at Reaching Critical Will.

Overheard This Month

  • “We do not want to undo the principles of Nuremberg … the danger of AI is that human beings… can all disclaim responsibility” - Dr. Harold Hongju Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law of Yale Law School, in Vienna

  • “We need more Iron Domes, not more Lavenders - Patricia Lewis, Chatham House, in Vienna

  • “If we can’t have the equivalent of a Non-Proliferation Treaty for AI, I think we have to attend to our own garden and decide what AI we want in our neck of the woods…” - Prof. Kenneth Payne, Kings College London, in Vienna

  • “AI and machine learning could change the fundamental nature of war… What happens if fear is no longer a part of warfare? How do you stop a war like that other than complete annihilation?” - Former US Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis (source)

  • We are very concerned about prevention and accountability, and on our own we are not powerful to be able to defend ourselves completely from powerful forces” - Lansana Gberie, Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, on West African and Global South perspectives on AWS (source).

Input Requested

Following the adoption of the first-ever UN resolution on autonomous weapons by 154 nations last December, UN Secretary General António Guterres will compile a report to help states commence formal negotiations for a treaty. The Secretary General is now requesting input for this report from states, civil society, the scientific community, and industry.

To contribute, email your input in a Word document to [email protected] and [email protected] by May 25th.

We recommend no more than two pages. Please do email [email protected] if you need help or want our feedback on your input.

AWS in the News

  • Reuters reports that U.S. officials are pushing Russia and China to join them in establishing a norm that only humans, not AI, will control nuclear weapons.

  • The Telegraph reports that Ukraine is developing more advanced autonomous drones for their ongoing war with Russia.

    → Ukraine has recently had to rely on homemade/off-the-shelf AWS (and remote warfare in general) to compensate for the shortage of conventional weapon support from its Western allies.

    → Per the report, “British defence sources have denied that the Government will play any role in producing autonomous drones alongside Ukrainian engineers.”

  • BBC Newsnight ran a segment on AWS in relation to reports of AI being used with little human oversight to identify targets in Gaza.

  • Be sure to check out Vienna Conference coverage from Reuters and Bloomberg.


The UK’s military thinktank, RUSI, is weighing in on the proliferation risk of autonomous weapons.

They are putting on an invite-only event on June 3rd - please let us know if you are also in London and want to grab a coffee.

Contact Us

For tips or feedback, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at [email protected].