'Killer robots' ban blocked by US and Russia at UN meeting

Campaigners want to ban the 'morally reprehensible weapons'

Mattha Busby,Anthony Cuthbertson
Monday 03 September 2018 17:45
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The 'Campaign to Stop Killer Robots' is calling for a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons
The 'Campaign to Stop Killer Robots' is calling for a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons

The US and Russia are among several countries preventing talks that could lead to a ban on so-called killer robots.

The group of advanced military powers, which also included South Korea, Israel and Australia, blocked progress towards a new international treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons systems following a week of talks in Geneva involving the United Nations.

A majority of states had proposed to begin negotiations on a new treaty to prevent the development and use of fully autonomous weapons – tanks, planes, ships and guns – which can act without any human oversight.

Due to the consensus decision-making process employed by the United Nation's Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), however, no such resolution was agreed and states simply pledged to continue to explore “options” for future work” on Saturday.

States have yet to even agree on a shared definition of what a lethal autonomous weapons system is, with those that most want to develop the weapons using this as a pretext to limit further progress in discussions, campaigners say.

“A handful of states said that the talks on fully autonomous weapons should continue, but strongly opposed any work aimed at a new treaty, political declaration, or any other new measures to address the dangers posed by these weapons,” said a spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“These states – Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea, and the United States – repeatedly expressed their desire to explore potential “advantages” or “benefits” to developing and using lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

Coordinator Mary Wareham of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said despite the set back she is hopeful that an international treaty can be reached.

Experts and senior military officials have said that the use of ‘killer robots’ will be widespread in warfare in a matter of years with the global spending on robotics set to double from £71.8bn in 2016 to $188bn in 2020, bringing full autonomy to the brink of realisation.

Twenty-six countries support an outright ban on fully autonomous weapons after Austria, Belgium and China recently joined leading scientists and artificial intelligence experts in declaring their support.

“The two main options on the table for next year’s work were binding regulations in the form of a political declaration led by Germany and France and negotiations towards a new international law to prohibit the use and development of autonomous weapons systems led by Austria, Brazil and Chile,” said Noel Sharkey, a leading roboticist who has acted as a spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

States hotly contested which policy recommendations to make for next year, with Russia, the US and Israel – who wanted the report to reflect the benefits of the technology – on one side; and Austria and many Latin American countries who wanted the report to only reflect the risks, on the other.

“Cuba was particularly stubborn and would not accept any wording that even hinted that there might be any benefits,” Sharkey said. “The others concede in the end with a compromise to take out the word ‘risks’ although the risks themselves remained.

“It is shameful that a handful of states can prevent the majority from moving towards negotiations that would regulate or prevent the use of these morally reprehensible weapons.”

Prior to the sixth meeting of governmental experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN, which was convened throughout last week, campaigners stressed that the use of fully autonomous weapons in war would breach the Geneva convention because they would act outside the “principles of humanity” and the “dictates of public conscience”.

“The campaign strongly objects to permitting the development of weapons systems that, once activated, would be able to select and attack targets without human intervention,” the spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots added.

“Doing so would be abhorrent, immoral, and an affront to the concept of human dignity and principles of humanity. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will continue to grow in strength and numbers the longer states take to negotiate a new international treaty [and] will urge the public not to let the world continue down this dangerous path.”

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