The World of International Organizations

Preemptive ban on killer robots blocked

Kirobo, a talking humanoid robot, on International Space Station (AN/Kibo Robot Project)

GENEVA — The United States, Russia and other nations blocked formal negotiations towards a new international law to govern or ban usage of killer robots if the technology becomes a reality someday.

Diplomats and officials held discussions into the early morning hours of September 1 on the possibility of retrofitting a 35-year-old U.N. treaty to handle emerging technologies for so-called lethal autonomous weapons systems, capping a week of meetings at the United Nations in Geneva.

Representatives from among 88 nations tried to define the responsibilities and limits of using weapons systems that go beyond the human-directed drones already being used by some armies today.

Many of the delegates acknowledged existing laws probably won’t cover future weapons that could decide on targets without human intervention. A coalition of international organizations known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots expressed dismay that the talks did not take the next step: launching formal negotiations towards fixing the potential legal loopholes.

The campaign — which includes Human Rights Watch and Nobel Women’s Initiative, and represents dozens of other international and national organizations in more than 30 nations — said it wants countries to agree to an international ban on Terminator-style machines before they can be activated.

“Support for new international law to ban fully autonomous weapons — killer robots — and retain meaningful human control over the use of force is growing rapidly,” the campaign said in a statement at the end of the talks. “Yet the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is dismayed that a small number of military powers are actively preventing progress towards this goal.”

There is precedent for such action: the U.N. treaty they met to discuss — the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which took effect in 1983 and has been adopted by 125 nations including the world’s major powers — was used to prohibit usage of blinding laser weapons in the 1990s before they were used on the battlefield.

Agreement on the problem, not solutions

The meeting this past week continued a series of U.N.-hosted talks that have been held on the subject at Geneva since 2014, but participants still struggled to reach agreement over basic issues such a final meeting report and how to carry talks forward in November.

Participants said there was general agreement on the need to retain some form of human control over weapons systems and the use of force, but widespread disagreement on how to accomplish that.

The Non-Aligned Movement, an international organization of 125 nations unaffiliated with a major power, favors a preemptive ban on killer robots. A handful of other nations including Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan and Panama also support it.

France and Germany proposed a non-binding declaration that humans must always be in control of such weapons systems and held accountable for the use of force.

Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Farukh Amil, said his nation believes such weapons represent the next revolution in military affairs, and the most important factor when it comes to defining their use is the question of autonomy.

He said lethal autonomous weapons should be defined as mechanized systems that can autonomously select and engage a target, also known as a weapon’s critical functions, without the direct involvement, control or supervision of a human.

“Human control on the use of weapons with autonomous functions has been deemed essential. We now need to ascertain the scope and extent of human control that would satisfy all concerns,” he said in a statement. “The discourse on characterization should not become an avenue for complicating the debate, nor for procrastinating while the relevant technologies continue to be weaponized.”

But the campaign noted strong opposition from Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea and the United States to any work aimed at a new treaty, political declaration, or other new measure to address the dangers of these weapons, and it said those countries “repeatedly expressed their desire to explore potential ‘advantages’ or ‘benefits’ to developing and using lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

Diplomats from the United States and other major powers have argued against pre-judging the uses of new technologies and instead called for focusing decisions on the actual ways that weapons are likely to develop. But diplomats from among some of world’s regional powers emphasized that it is not too early to ponder the ethical and legal aspects of new military technologies, even if they do not yet exist.

“Diplomacy often becomes a race to the bottom when consensus is the decision making mode,” Mary Wareham, the campaign’s global coordinator and advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, observed. “Even if states agree, the end result will fail to impress.”

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