Bio urges ECOWASleaders to develop strategy against autonomous weapons

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President Bio sandwiched by some of his cabinet ministers and organisers of the conference

By Hassan Gbassay Koroma

President Julius Maada Bio has urged ECOWAS regional leaders to forge common understanding and develop strategies to address the challenges posed by Autonomous Weapons Systems.

He made the call on Wednesday at the Freetown International Conference Centre during the commencement of the Regional Conference on Peace and Security.

“This Conference is so critical. By bringing together experts, policymakers, and stakeholders from across the region, we can forge common understanding and develop strategies to address the challenges posed by Autonomous Weapons Systems,” he said.

President Bio noted that  the conference was the first African regional conference on autonomous weapons systems with the theme “Peace and Security Aspect of Autonomous Weapons System, an ECOWAS Perspective on a Path towards the Negotiation Process of a Legally Binding Instrument” in the region.

He said the conference aims to primarily set the agenda and propel the global discourse on establishing a legally binding instrument to address the use of Autonomous Weapons Systems.

“The conference is to discuss and develop a common approach towards this complex but extremely relevant and important challenge. The initiative comes in response to the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief from July 2023, urging negotiations on the matter to be concluded by 2026,” he said, adding that the conference underscores Sierra Leone’s active engagement in international forums and commitment to upholding agreements such as the Arms Trade Treaty.

Bio acknowledged that ECOWAS has been at the cutting edge of an integrated regional approach towards governance and security, and that Autonomous Weapons Systems are emerging as one of the most fundamental challenges that they must confront, as part of  their collective responsibility to safeguard global peace, security, and human dignity.

He said Autonomous Weapons Systems represent a significant advancement in technology, offering capabilities that were once in the realm of science fiction, but with the advancement comes a range of complex ethical, legal, and security challenges that demand the region’s urgent attention.

“As leaders in our respective nations, we must ensure that these technologies are developed and used in a manner that upholds the principles of international law, human rights, and humanitarian values. We must not allow the allure of technological progress to blind us to the potential dangers posed by Autonomous Weapons Systems,” he urged.

He said the deployment of those weapons has the potential to fundamentally alter the nature of warfare, raising serious questions about accountability, oversight, and the protection of civilians.

“The prospect of machines making life-and death decisions on the battlefield is deeply troubling and demands rigorous debate and careful consideration. The proliferation of Autonomous Weapons could lead to an escalation of conflicts as nations race to develop and deploy ever more advanced systems. This arms race mentality threatens to destabilise regions and undermine global security,” he noted.

He said the unchecked proliferation within the ECOWAS region would pose significant threats to stability and security, especially as they could be acquired and used by non-state actors, including insurgents, terrorists, and criminals, to destabilise legitimate governments and already fragile societies.

In her video massage, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu  said the conference was an important opportunity to deepen understanding of the implication of the autonomous weapon systems and the issue of global security, human rights and international humanitarian law.

She said the world is today challenged with the risk of advanced weapon system and at the same time the world is also witnessing the integration of high level of autonomous weapon systems.

She said autonomous weapon systems is undermining international human rights law and has major implication on international security and for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructures.  

She said the UN Secretary-General has urged an urgent need for government regimes to effectively respond to the challenges posed by autonomous weapon systems.

He said in his new agenda for peace, the Secretary-General called on states to address the humanitarian legal security and concerns caused by the autonomous weapon systems.

Commissioner of Political Affairs, Peace and Security at ECOWAS, Dr. Abdel-Fatau Musah said the development and the putting into use autonomous weapon systems has lots of security implications, noting that already weapons similar to autonomous weapon systems are in use and targeting areas with airborne attack without human control.

He said the conference was timely and very focused, adding that it  would be  important for leaders of the West African  region to put regulations in place to see that they  do not encourage the use of such weapons in the region.

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