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Vienna conference affirms commitment to new international law

‘Humanity at the Crossroads: autonomous weapons and the challenge of regulation’ conference in Vienna marks largest gathering on autonomous weapons outside of the UN and demonstrates growing consensus that new, legally binding rules are urgently needed.

On 29th and 30th April 2024, in Vienna, Austria hosted the conference ‘Humanity at the Crossroads: autonomous weapons and the challenge of regulation’. This conference marked the biggest gathering on the issue of autonomy in weapons systems outside of the UN to date, with 144 states attending, over 1,000 participants, high-level representation from foreign ministers from around the world, expert panel discussions, and a strong and significant civil society presence (including 60 Stop Killer Robots campaigners). This widespread participation clearly demonstrates the growing consensus that new, legally binding rules on autonomous weapons are urgently needed.

In his conference opening remarks, Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs Alexander Schallenberg underlined that ‘technology is moving ahead with racing speed, while politics is lagging behind’, and said that he ‘cannot overstate the urgency’ of the need for regulation, emphasising that:

This is the ‘Oppenheimer moment’ of our generation! We cannot let this moment pass without taking action. Now is the time to agree on international rules and norms to ensure human control.

Minister Schallenberg called on states to ‘at least make sure that the most profound decision – who lives and who dies – remains in the hands of humans and not machines’, adding that ‘humanity is at the crossroads – we must not miss the right turn.’

Similarly, the Chair’s Summary report of the conference stresses that technology should ‘empower people, not dehumanize them’, highlighting that:

Human control must prevail in the use of force. The delegation to machines of decisions over choice of targets and life and death is an issue that concerns all of us. It profoundly challenges our global social contract and the UN Charter.

The Chair’s Summary further stresses that ‘targeting people is a most pressing ethical issue’, and that ‘distance and dehumanisation, the risks of lowering the political threshold to use force as well as escalation risks, including by machine to machine interaction, raise further concerns.’

Stop Killer Robots’ implores the international community to recognise that we are at a crucial moment in history, where we must work together to limit the use of autonomy in weapons systems. Ongoing conflicts demonstrate the urgency and need for new legal rules and limits. This is a moment in time where we can make a difference that will affect all of us and the generations to come. However, it is crucial we act now. 

To achieve the legally binding instrument that is so urgently needed, states must commit to action following Vienna. This instrument must be negotiated through a process that is transparent and inclusive, and motivated by a shared determination to ensure that life and death decision making is not delegated to machines. Stop Killer Robots stands ready to support states in this effort.

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