Following objections from manufacturing states, UN talks on autonomous weapons systems, sometimes known as “killer robots,” fell short of beginning negotiations into an international convention to restrict their use, according to country officials and campaigners.
With exception of existing semi-autonomous armaments such as drones, fully autonomous weapons lack a human-operated “kill switch,” instead relying on sensors, software, and machine processes to make life and death decisions.
Since a UN panel study in March suggested that the first autonomous drone attack may have occurred in Libya, the industry’s regulation has taken on new urgency. The 125 parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) were urged by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week to come up with a “ambitious proposal” for new standards.
However, the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference failed to schedule any additional discussions on the development and use of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, or LAWS, on Friday.
The five-day meeting in Geneva was attended by countries that have already invested extensively in the development of LAWS, preventing a majority from agreeing on steps to establish legally-binding limits on machine-operated weapons.
Russia, India, and the United States were among the countries that fought back against a new LAWS treaty, according to sources following the discussions. The United States has emphasised the advantages of LAWS, which include precision.
“At the current rate of progress, technical growth risks outpacing our talks,” said Switzerland’s Disarmament Ambassador Felix Baumann, expressing dissatisfaction with the UN intergovernmental panel’s decision, which has been ongoing for the past eight years.
Sixty-eight countries have urged the UN to adopt a legal instrument, while a number of non-governmental organisations have been fighting the unregulated proliferation of such weapons and advocating for additional laws.
New Zealand’s Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Phil Twyford, and Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg have both called for the development of new international laws governing autonomous weapons. Norway and Germany’s new government coalition agreements have committed to act on this issue.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was among those who expressed dissatisfaction with the discussions’ outcome.
The upshot of the week-long negotiations, according to Neil Davison, a policy adviser in the ICRC’s Legal Division, “is a true squandered opportunity and not in our view what is needed to respond to the hazards posed by autonomous weapons.”
“The CCW has once again proved its inability to make significant progress,” said Verity Coyle, senior adviser at Amnesty International.
Campaigners now believe that, in order to assure future progress on the problem, a new approach from the long-running series of UN meetings may be required.