Campaigning at the UN in New York

At the newly refurbished United Nations in New York this month, there have been several signs that momentum is building behind calls for international talks on fully autonomous weapons, also known as “lethal autonomous robots” or “killer robots.” The evidence that this issue has arrived could be seen everywhere during the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, from packed side events to bilateral consultations with delegations, statements to the plenary, and in media coverage.

Events

At least 19 states attended one or both side event briefings on killer robots held on 21 and 22 October: Austria, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States. Several intervened in the discussion that followed the presentations.

At the side event convened by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on Monday, 21 October, Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams said, “I don’t want to see robots operating on their own, armed with lethal weapons” and asked the audience, “Do we really want to go there?” Professor Noel Sharkey of ICRAC described precursors to fully autonomous weapons as “systems that can select targets on their own and attack them on their own.” He presented a statement signed by 272 scientists in 37 countries that urges the retention of human judgment in decisions on targeting and the use of force. Richard Moyes of Article 36 said that discussing existing autonomous weapons systems would be helpful in developing the definition of what is “meaningful” or “adequate” human control. He urged a focus on where to draw the line on the level of human control over the use of force.

In the discussion that followed, Egypt read its statement from the First Committee (below). France commented that governments and civil society must address this complex issue together and said it had been consulting with states on a mandate for discussions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), where it will propose in November a diplomatic mandate for talks on fully autonomous weapons in 2014. Switzerland welcomed the civil society campaign and said the topic must be discussed in a forum with the key actors.

UNIDIR held a side event on Tuesday, 22 October that featured a presentation by Professor Christof Heyns, who in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, issued a report earlier this year on fully autonomous weapons that raised moral, ethical, legal, policy, technical, and other concerns with the weapons. His report calls for a moratorium on fully autonomous weapons and for a high-level panel to propose the necessary international framework to address them.

At the side event, Heyns described fully autonomous weapons as “one of the most interesting topics” that he has ever dealt with as rapporteur. He said that no single forum can deal comprehensively with this topic as so many issues are involved and commented that “there is a window of opportunity for the international community to debate this technology before it is used, unlike nuclear weapons.”

Several heads of delegation attended both side events, including Michael W. Meier for the United States.

Statements

As of 23 October, at least four states had spoken on fully autonomous weapons in the plenary of the First Committee deliberations:

  • Austria (15 Oct.) said “Prevention and accountability for deliberate targeting of civilians during war, as well as disproportionate collateral casualties as a result of military action, are at the centre of our concern. Today, arms technology is undergoing rapid changes. The use of armed drones in conflict situations is increasing. In a not too distant future, fully autonomous weapons systems might become available. As a result, the implications of these developments on IHL require urgent engagement by relevant UN forums and further discussion with a view to ensure that these weapons will not be used in a way that violates universally recognized principles of IHL such as the proportionality of the use of force or the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants.”
  • Egypt (8 Oct.) said “Egypt reiterates that technology should not overtake humanity. The potential or actual development of Lethal Autonomous Robotics raises many questions on their compliance with international humanitarian law, as well as issues of warfare ethics. Such issues need to be fully addressed. Regulations should be put into place before such systems (LARs) are to be developed and/or deployed.”
  • France (8 Oct.) said “We must look to the future and address its challenges. An important debate has emerged in recent months on the issue of Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs). This is a key debate as it raises the fundamental question of the place of Man in the decision to use lethal force. It is also a difficult debate, as it highlights many ethical, legal and technical issues. It covers technologies which are not yet fully developed and which are dual-use. The terms of this debate need to be clarified. To be useful and allow progress, this discussion needs to be held in an appropriate disarmament forum, combining the necessary military, legal and technical expertise and all the States concerned.”
  • Pakistan (16 Oct.) said “Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs) – that would chose and fire on pre-programmed targets on their own without any human intervention – pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and the notion of affixation of responsibility. … We recognize that consensus building will be a difficult task, but we take this opportunity to put forward some ideas that we feel are essential to promote greater global security: … Nine, The development and use of drones and Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARS) need to be checked and brought under international regulation. Besides the UNGA and its First Committee, the CCW Conference of State Parties also provides a forum to address these issues.”

Reports and media coverage

At First Committee, Human Rights Watch distributed a new “Questions and Answers” paper on fully autonomous weapons that responds to questions received on since the release of its 2012 “Losing Humanity” report. ICRAC issued the statement calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons that was signed by 272 scientists in 37 countries.

The work on killer robots at the UN in New York has attracted strong media interest with articles by TIME WorldComputer World (in German), Fast Company, NBC News, and VICE, an op ed in SBS News, and blog post by Just SecurityTake Part, and Toward Freedom.

On 15 November 2013 , nations participating in the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting in Geneva will decide whether to put fully autonomous weapons on the CCW’s program of work for 2014.

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