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UN Secretary-General calls for new international law to regulate and prohibit killer robots by 2026

It’s time for the international community to rise to the challenge.

A New Agenda for Peace, released today by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, has issued an urgent call to states to adopt a legal treaty to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons systems by 2026. This deadline is a crucial recognition that new technologies pose fundamental humanitarian, legal, security and ethical concerns that directly threaten human rights and fundamental freedoms.

A New Agenda for Peace builds on proposals set out by the Secretary-General in his 2021 report Our Common Agenda, and is intended to provide inputs to the preparations for the United Nations “Summit for the Future” to be held in 2024. The New Agenda for Peace and its “action-oriented recommendations” are presented by the Secretary-General, but come after a series of consultations with Member States and regional organisations; civil society; and the United Nations system. 

In addition to in-person consultations held by the Secretariat and informal bilateral and group engagements, thirty-three individual Member States from all regional groups submitted written inputs, with Austria, Belgium, China, France, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, the Russian Federation, and Switzerland specifically raising autonomous weapons systems or military applications of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies in their submissions. 

Responding to the open call to civil society to contribute to A New Agenda for Peace, the Stop Killer Robots submission recommended that the report “make clear the urgent need for a legally binding instrument on the development and use of autonomous weapons systems to ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and safeguard against the serious risks these weapons pose to all of humanity.”

Indeed, A New Agenda for Peace has clearly recognised “the perils of weaponising new and emerging technologies” and their potential to “revolutionise conflict dynamics in the not-too-distant future.” One of twelve Recommendations for Action in the report, ‘Action 11: Prevent the weaponisation of emerging domains and promote responsible innovation’, considers the transformative potential of emerging technologies in conflict and warfare, the threat of their use by non-state actors, and the risks posed to human rights due to issues with “accuracy, reliability, human control and data and algorithmic bias.”

Reinforcing and strengthening the Secretary-General’s previous calls for action on killer robots, A New Agenda Peace provides specific recommendations on “prohibiting lethal autonomous weapons systems,” noting that “in the absence of specific multilateral regulations, the design, development and use of these systems raise humanitarian, legal, security and ethical concerns and pose a direct threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are morally repugnant and politically unacceptable and should be prohibited by international law.

We welcome the clear and strong recommendation by the Secretary-General that, building on progress made in multilateral negotiations, Member states should “conclude, by 2026, a legally binding instrument to prohibit lethal autonomous weapon systems that function without human control or oversight, and which cannot be used in compliance with international humanitarian law, and to regulate all other types of autonomous weapons systems.”

The Secretary-General’s unprecedented timeline for action comes amid increasing reports of the use of weapons systems with concerning levels of autonomy in conflict. The report notes that developments in artificial intelligence technologies including those related to weapons systems are “exposing the insufficiency of existing governance frameworks”. Some 90 states have so far called for a legal instrument on autonomous weapons, but discussions to adopt such an instrument have so far been blocked by a minority of militarised states that are investing heavily in the development of autonomous weapons. 

A New Agenda for Peace provides a clear rallying call for states to move beyond procedural deadlock and demonstrate a commitment to action – for us and future generations.

Isabelle Jones

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