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Killer Robots: UN Vote Should Spur Action on Treaty

Guterres Should Seek to Tackle Autonomous Weapons Systems

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots robot at the United Nations in New York in October 2019.  © 2019 Campaign to Stop Killer Robots/Ari Beser

(New York, January 3, 2023) – Countries that approved the first-ever United Nations General Assembly resolution on “killer robots” should promote negotiations on a new international treaty to ban and regulate these weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. Autonomous weapons systems select and apply force to targets based on sensor processing rather than human inputs.

On December 22, 2023, 152 countries voted in favor of the General Assembly resolution on the dangers of lethal autonomous weapons systems, while four voted no, and 11 abstained. General Assembly Resolution 78/241 acknowledges the “serious challenges and concerns” raised by “new technological applications in the military domain, including those related to artificial intelligence and autonomy in weapons systems.”

“The General Assembly resolution on autonomous weapons systems stresses the urgent need for the international community to deal with the dangers raised by removing human control from the use of force,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The resolution’s wide support shows that governments are prepared to take action, and they should move forward on a new international treaty without delay.”

Some autonomous weapons systems have existed for years, but the types, duration of operation, geographical scope, and environment in which such systems operate have been limited. However, technological advances are spurring the development of autonomous weapons systems that operate without meaningful human control, delegating life-and-death decisions to machines. The machine rather than the human operator would determine where, when, or against what force is applied.

The resolution asks UN Secretary-General António Guterres to seek the views of countries and other stakeholders on ways to address the challenges and concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems “from humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspectives,” and reflect those views in a report to the General Assembly by September 2024.

The resolution adds an agenda item on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” to the provisional agenda of the UN General Assembly in 2024, providing a platform for states to pursue action to address this issue. The General Assembly provides an inclusive and accessible forum in which any UN member state can contribute. Tackling the killer robots challenge under its auspices would allow greater consideration of concerns that have been overlooked in discussions held to date, including ethical perspectives, international human rights law, proliferation, and impacts on global security and regional and international stability, including the risk of an arms race and lowering the threshold for conflict, Human Rights Watch said.

The countries voting against the resolution were: Belarus, India, Mali, and Russia. Those abstaining were: China, Iran, Israel, Madagascar, North Korea, Niger, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Türkiye, and the United Arab Emirates. Of these states, China, India, Iran, Israel, and Türkiye have been investing heavily in military applications of artificial intelligence and related technologies to develop air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.

Austria put forward the resolution with 42 co-sponsoring states at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, where it passed an initial vote on November 1, by 164 votes in favor, five against, and eight abstentions.

More than 100 countries regard a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems with prohibitions and restrictions as necessary, urgent, and achievable, and during 2023, many states and international organizations have reiterated their support for this objective.

In February, more than 30 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean endorsed the Belén Communiqué, acknowledging the need “to promote the urgent negotiation of an international legally binding instrument, with prohibitions and regulations with regard to autonomy in weapons systems.” In September, 15 Caribbean states endorsed a CARICOM declaration on the human impacts of autonomous weapons at a meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.

On October 5, Secretary-General Guterres and International Committee of the Red Cross President Mirjana Spoljaric issued a joint appeal for UN member states to negotiate a new international treaty by 2026 to ban and regulate autonomous weapons systems.

Most treaty proponents have called for prohibitions on autonomous systems that by their nature operate without meaningful human control or that target people, as well as regulations that ensure all other autonomous weapons systems cannot be used without meaningful human control.

Talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems have been held at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva since May 2014, but have failed to deliver a substantive outcome. The main reason for the lack of progress under the CCW is that its member countries rely on a consensus approach to decision-making, which means a single country can reject a proposal, even if every other country agrees to it. A handful of major military powers have exploited this to repeatedly block proposals to negotiate a legally binding instrument.

On November 17, states at the CCW agreed to meet for up to 20 days across 2024 and 2025 to “consider and formulate, by consensus, a set of elements of an instrument, without prejudging its nature.” The agreement does not mandate states to negotiate and adopt a new CCW protocol.

“Technological change is rapidly advancing a future of automated killing that needs to be stopped,” Wareham said. “To safeguard humanity, all governments should support the urgent negotiation of a new international treaty to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons systems.”

Human Rights Watch is a cofounder of Stop Killer Robots, the coalition of more than 250 nongovernmental organizations across 70 countries that is working for new international law on autonomy in weapons systems.

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