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What next for talks on regulating ‘killer robots’?

The opening session of the CCW review conference from 12-17 December, 2021. NGOs together with a growing number of countries have been calling for a new legal instrument to regulate autonomous weapons. (Credit: Kasmira Jefford)

UN talks on autonomous weapons systems were left “in a quagmire” last week, according to rights groups, as countries remained at odds over how to regulate the onset of so-called “killer robots”. 

Campaigners and NGOs expressed their dismay after countries sidestepped a decision on whether to launch negotiations on a legally binding instrument to regulate lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) at a crucial meeting on the issue.

Instead, the conference in Geneva concluded with a long and broad statement agreeing to “consider proposals” in 2022 and bring in further legal, military and technological expertise.

The decision comes after more than eight years of UN talks over how to deal with the threats posed by the rapid technological advancement of weapons with increasing levels of autonomy and where a machine could be capable of engaging or attacking a target with little – or without – human control.

Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) review conference, which takes place every five years, was seen as a crucial deadline for moving forward on new rules governing their use.

"The disappointment is palpable,” said Verity Coyle, senior advisor and campaigner at Amnesty International, who attended the review conference, which meets to make sure the convention stays up to date in protecting civilians from the effects of weapons in armed conflict.

Though agreed on a consensus basis, Coyle added that the watered-down mandate did not represent the demands expressed by a big majority of countries during meetings of the group of governmental experts over the last year.

“The hard work of the majority of states who have been vocal in their calls to begin work on a legally binding instrument is not reflected in the mandate you see due to a very small minority of states that have blocked meaningful progress," she told Geneva Solutions.

Several countries also voiced their disappointment after a group of governmental experts that met during the year to explore the challenges and different approaches to limiting the risks from killer robots failed to agree on recommendations to present to the chair of the conference.

“That we could not move substance forward this year speaks volumes,” said Austria during the five-day conference.

According to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of NGOs calling for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons, some 68 out of the 125 countries behind the convention on weapons have spoken out in favour of moving negotiations forward on additional regulations.

Countries including Austria have been amongst the most vocal calling for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems at a ministerial level. Norway and Germany’s new coalition governments have also said they will take action on this issue.

But Russia, the United States, Israel, and India are among those who have expressed their doubts over the need for a new legal framework. Russia has argued that existing international laws are sufficient in safeguarding civilians and combatants against the risks of autonomous weapons while the US has proposed a non-binding code of conduct.

The ICRC has said that while international humanitarian law applies to autonomous weapons, they do not provide sufficiently clear guidance and further limits need to be defined. Otherwise, the impact on lives in the future could be severe.

Many countries are investing heavily in upgrading their weapons systems with new AI and other technological capabilities , with experts pointing out that one of the challenges is that no world powers are willing to lose speed in the military arms race.

Among the other problems raised in the near-decade-long process is in defining the spectrum of human control and to what extent—if any—life and death decisions may be “delegated” to machines?

“Fundamentally, autonomous weapon systems raise ethical concerns for society about substituting human decisions about life and death with sensor, software, and machine processes,” said Peter Maurer, during his opening statement at the conference. The organisation has called on countries to support a legally binding instrument.

"We appreciate that many governments have tried their best in eight years to work in this process. They have found a lot of mutually agreeable ways to work on this in terms of the structure of prohibitions and regulations and positive obligations,” Coyle said.

“Unfortunately, what we've seen here in terms of the blocking of consensus will continue, that won't change. So, they will have to take action that bypasses the quagmire they find themselves in at the CCW."

One way forward would be for countries in support of a treaty to launch a separate process outside of the UN framework as was the case with the 1997 mine ban treaty, which now has 164 parties, or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Coyle believes this step is now looking increasingly likely.

Richard Moyes, from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, said: “Government leaders 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.”