As the debate about “killer robots” continues, the threat they pose looms large.

© 2016 Russell Christian for Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – Countries meeting in Geneva on November 13-24, 2017, missed a chance to move ahead to prevent the development of weapons systems that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control, Human Rights Watch said today.

The countries agreed to continue diplomatic talks that started in 2014 to consider concerns raised over “killer robots,” or lethal autonomous weapons systems. But the unambitious diplomatic process falls far short of what is needed. At risk is a real chance to prevent the development of such weapons systems.  

“A critical mass of states want to start negotiating new international law to prevent the development of killer robots, but this forum looks unlikely to deliver any time soon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Bold action is needed before technology races ahead and it’s too late to preemptively ban weapons systems that would make life and death decisions on the battlefield.”

At their annual meeting in Geneva, the 125 nations that are part of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed to continue formal deliberations next year to deal with the challenges raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems.

For the first time, the group of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries called for the development of new international law “to prohibit and regulate” lethal autonomous weapons systems. NAM also called for an immediate moratorium on the pursuit of such weapons.

The group of nations specifically endorsing the call to preemptively ban these weapons expanded to 22, with the additions of Brazil, Iraq, and Uganda. Nearly every treaty member endorsed the concept of human control over autonomous weapons, which, if the human control is truly meaningful, would constitute a ban on fully autonomous weapons.

Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India will continue as chair of the convention’s deliberations on killer robots next year, which will be divided into two, week-long meetings.

Another key topic at the conference was incendiary weapons, which should not be used in populated areas because they cause severe burns to victims and set buildings aflame. Twenty-three countries commented on the harm caused by incendiary weapons and the adequacy of international regulations governing them, amid reports of their continued use in Syria.

Most of these countries called for reviewing the protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons on incendiary weapons to close loopholes concerning their use. The protocol should, at a minimum, ensure that all weapons with incendiary effects, regardless of their delivery system, are prohibited in civilian areas. Some countries demanded a total prohibition on incendiary weapons.

Governments at the meeting collectively condemned the use of incendiary weapons against civilians and civilian objects and agreed to discuss the law governing them again in 2018.

“After nearly 40 years, an in-depth review of the law governing incendiary weapons is urgently needed to determine how to  protect civilians from their cruel effects,” Goose said. “The protocol has proven inadequate to deal with harm being inflicted by these reprehensible weapons.”