UN stalemate in the negotiations over autonomous lethal weapons

A few weeks ago, the 120 State parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) met in Geneve for the 6th Review of the Convention. The discussion about the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) was on the top of the agenda.

The movement demanding a legal response to LAWS has been growing and involves international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and campaigns like “Stop Killer Robots”. At the UN, discussions to reach an agreement on the issue date back to 2014.

The meeting took place nine months after the UN reported that LAWS are already being used and could have killed people, such as when militia fighters fled a rocket attack in Libya’s Civil War in 2020. The weapon employed by government-backed forces was a drone known as Kargu-2 produced by the Turkish company STM.

Although States have been making weapons more and more autonomous (i.e. to detect missiles), there is still a “human-in-the-loop” who makes the final decision. The fact that technological advances in AI might allow a higher degree of autonomy raises concerns about the possible proliferation of this kind of weapon.

During the meeting, a coalition composed of Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland, stated that LAWS “ (…) cannot be used in compliance with international humanitarian law, are de facto outlawed and their use must be prevented”. In addition, other parties to the Convention asked for LAWS to be regulated. On the other hand, countries like the U.S., Russia, India, the U.K., and Australia objected to the possibility that LAWS might be banned, claiming that preventing them from developing such technology would place them in a position of “strategic disadvantage”.

Even though a large part of the international community supports the need for prohibition or strict regulation, the fact that a decision must be taken unanimously represents the biggest obstacle to setting up a binding international legal framework. In the end, the participants pledged to continue and “intensify” discussions on the topic.

For Verity Coyle, a senior advisor at Amnesty International, the CCW demonstrated an inability to make “meaningful progress”. Moreover, Neil Davison, a policy advisor at ICRC, stated that the lack of consensus represented a missed opportunity. Such a stalemate will have to be overcome in order to tackle the risks associated with autonomous weapons.

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