Country officials and campaigners have expressed disappointment after United Nations talks on autonomous weapons systems – known as “killer robots” – stopped short of launching negotiations into an international treaty to govern their use following opposition from manufacturing states.
Unlike existing semi-autonomous weapons such as drones, fully-autonomous weapons have no human-operated “kill switch” and instead leave decisions over life and death to sensors, software and machine processes.
The regulation of the industry has taken on new urgency since a UN panel report in March said the first autonomous drone attack may have occurred in Libya. This week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres encouraged the 125 parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to come up with an “ambitious plan” on new rules.
But on Friday, the Sixth Review Conference of the CCW failed to schedule further talks around the development and use of the Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, or LAWS.
Countries already investing heavily in the development of LAWS attended the five-day meeting in Geneva, blocking a majority from agreeing on steps to establish legally-binding rules on machine-operated weapons.
Sources following the talks told Reuters news agency that Russia, India and the United States were among the countries that pushed back against a new LAWS treaty. The US has pointed to the benefits of LAWS, including precision.
“At the present rate of progress, the pace of technological development risks overtaking our deliberations,” said Switzerland’s Disarmament Ambassador Felix Baumann, voicing discontent at the outcome of the UN intergovernmental panel, which has been held for the past eight years.
Sixty-eight states have called for a legal instrument at the UN while a number of NGOs have been battling the unregulated spread of such weapons and pushing for new regulations.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and New Zealand’s Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control Phil Twyford have both called for the development of new international laws regulating autonomous weapons. The new government coalition agreements of Norway and Germany have promised to take action on this issue.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was among those to express disappointment in the outcome of the talks.
“It’s a real missed opportunity and not in our view what is needed to respond to the risks posed by autonomous weapons,” Neil Davison, a policy adviser in the Legal Division at ICRC, said of the outcome of the week-long talks.
Verity Coyle, senior adviser at Amnesty International, said “the CCW has once again demonstrated its inability to make meaningful progress”.
Campaigners now believe a separate process from the long-running series of UN talks may be needed to ensure future progress on the issue.
“It’s now time that committed states take the lead on an external process that can deliver the type of breakthrough we’ve previously seen on landmines and cluster munitions,” Coyle said, adding that the window of opportunity to regulate is getting smaller.
Richard Moyes, coordinator at Stop Killer Robots, said governments “need to draw a moral and legal line for humanity against the killing of people by machines”.
“A clear majority of states see the need to ensure meaningful human control over the use of force. It’s time now for them to lead in order to prevent the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of killer robots,” Moyes said.