Should ‘killer robots’ be banned? The forum designed to decide is failing to act. A new path is needed.

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Article by Jonathan Frerichs, Pax Christi International representative in Geneva

Autonomous robots capable of killing human beings should be banned. Most governments at a United Nations forum tackling this issue would agree. But the forum is deadlocked because the Russian government refuses to allow any substantive progress. Dozens of countries have proposed ways for the Group of Governmental Experts at the United Nations in Geneva to proceed. Yet Russia, with the tacit support of a few other states, blocked the latest round of negotiations in July 2022 and two earlier meetings in the past year.

These setbacks are undermining a treaty on especially injurious or indiscriminate weapons. After the July failure, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urged governments to show leadership by “engaging in a new forum that is capable of making progress”. The campaign said “The world is waiting”. It called for a new way forward to “safeguard against the legal, ethical and humanitarian, and security risks posed by autonomous weapon systems”. Pax Christi International is a member of the campaign and took part in the July meeting in Geneva.

Various attempts were made to save the process. States from different regions of the world had proposed what to regulate, what to prohibit and the need to assure meaningful human control over all autonomous weapon systems. The chair of the expert group circulated a draft report drawing from the various proposals. The chair’s conclusions had “strong potential as the basis for a legally binding instrument” on the development and use of such weapons, the Stop Killer Robots campaign said. Yet Russia and a few other governments rejected core parts of the draft. Details critical for effective arms controls were deleted from the meeting’s final report. Dissenters made use of a UN rule which conflates consensus with unanimity, and – nine years after it took up the issue of autonomous weapons – this Group of Governmental Experts saw its progress deleted once again.

“We are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism, which is all the more serious in the light of the development of new forms of military technology, such as lethal autonomous weapons systems which irreversibly alter the nature of warfare, detaching it further from human agency,“ Pope Francis told the UN General Assembly in 2020.

“It is imperative to ensure adequate, meaningful and consistent human supervision over weapons systems: it is only humans who are able to see the results of their actions and understand the connections between cause and effect. That would not be the case with Lethal Autonomous Weapons,” said the Holy See in a current working paper for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the treaty being asked to regulate robotic weapons.

“Imagine the consequences of an autonomous system that could, by itself, target and attack human beings,” UN Secretary General António Guterres has said. “I call upon States to ban these weapons, which are politically unacceptable and morally repugnant.”

During the recent meeting of experts, Russia asked repeatedly for civil society representatives to be expelled. However, a variety of states including Ireland, Costa Rica, New Zealand, South Africa, Austria, Chile, Mexico, Canada, Netherlands, Pakistan, Norway, United Kingdom and the United States spoke against Russia’s demand. The attempts failed. Other UN forums have reported the same pattern of behavior.