At the United Nations in Geneva the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called on governments to not allow the development of weapons systems that would select and attack targets without any human intervention.

© 2018 Mary Wareham

Opposition to the creation of so-called “killer robots” – weapons systems that could select and attack targets without any human intervention – is growing. The issue has been hotly debated since 2013, when the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots began calling for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of such technology. The group has repeatedly warned that these weapons could have devastating consequences for civilian populations around the world.

The only way to stop the development of fully autonomous weapons is through national laws and an international ban treaty. But current diplomatic talks at the United Nations on this challenge are based on consensus – which allows just a few or even a single state to block an agreement sought by a majority – and often results in lowest-common denominator decision-making.

This is effectively what happened in Geneva last week at the sixth Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems. There was strong convergence among the 88 participating states on the need to retain some form of human control over weapons systems and the use of force. Many countries recommended a preemptive ban on the development and use of these weapons.

But a handful of states – namely Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea, and the United States – strongly opposed any new treaty. Alarmingly, they instead suggested exploring the potential humanitarian “benefits” of developing and using lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Ultimately, the CCW meeting participants could only agree to recommend continuing their deliberations into next year. But the longer it takes states to negotiate a new international ban, the greater the chance that killer robots will become reality, and forever change the face of warfare. The world must not continue down this dangerous path.