The Few States Opposed to New Law Against Killer Robots Block the Many States in Favour (Again)

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Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems of CCW

Photo: Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems of CCW (2015) UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

Weapons programmed to hunt and kill people? That’s the urgent, hi-tech question governments representing most of humanity just debated for 10 days in Geneva.  A majority argued strongly to negotiate a ban on such weapons—a step already supported by nearly 70 states and more than 180 civil society organizations, including Pax Christi International. 

No, said a small minority of governments with big militaries already working towards autonomous weapons, the existing laws of war apply to killer robots. 10 more days of meetings next year will do.

So, faced with growing prospects of robots that select and strike targets on their own, members of a United Nations treaty set up to curb especially dangerous weapons could only agree to keep talking.  It is the ninth year of deadlock on the issue at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), after 2013 referral from the UN Human Rights Council.  

“It’s now clear that a minority of states including the US and Russia, already investing heavily in the development of autonomous weapons, are committed to…block progress towards an international legal response to autonomy in weapons systems,” the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots concluded. Pax Christi International is a member of the campaign.

“States should feel confident that outside this room, the majority of public opinion, experts in artificial intelligence and technology, researchers and academics, faith leaders from around the world and the UN Secretary General, will all be with us” in negotiating a new treaty, Ousmann Noor of the Stop Killer Robots campaign told the closing session.

Throughout the 10 days of debate, states and civil society organizations from Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East pushed for urgent action on legally binding prohibitions and obligations regarding robotic weapons.  A carefully crafted compromise to build on past work was developed at an experts meeting during the first week of the CCW conference, 6-17 December 2021.  However, the misuse of consensus at the United Nations enables failure in such circumstances. Paragraph by paragraph and even word by word, Russia took the lead in rejecting or watering down the compromise.  The delegations of the United States, Israel, United Kingdom, Australia and South Korea offered varying degrees of support plus much silence.

“It is important to remind ourselves that on the other side of decisions in Geneva are human beings. The time to act on killer robots is now,” Merel Selleslach, a campaigner from Pax Christi Flanders, said of the meeting.  “A clear majority of states is calling for a legally binding framework on lethal autonomous weapons, making me hopeful to see treaty negotiations starting up next year.”  It is a way forward on the minds of many there.