Crucial meeting on "killer robots" postponed in Geneva

Photo: Ralf Schlesener, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

The first 2020 meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons was due to open at the United Nations in Geneva on 10 August. Like many multilateral negotiations, it has been postponed for the second time because of Covid-19. The first session will now take place on 21-25 September, subject to further developments, and the second session on 2-6 November 2020. This new delay is worrying human rights activists, who were expecting the meeting to discuss a crucial “normative and operational framework” for lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

Why it matters. Technology is being developed faster than laws and regulations. With rapid advancements in autonomous devices and artificial intelligence (AI), it is a matter of years, maybe months, before advanced lethal autonomous weapons systems will be operational.

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30 countries, as well as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called for a ban on “killer robots”, which he called “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.” As for the NGOs, one of the most involved is Human Rights Watch, which launched in 2013 its Stop Killer Robots campaign. On 10 August 2020, the NGO published a report reviewing the policies on LAWS of 97 countries.

Issues raised. Questions of political, military, and ethical nature are brought up by LAWS. The ability for killer robots to truly respect the principles of distinction, proportionality, and humanity — essential in international humanitarian law — is one of the main legal challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons. Another is defining principles guiding accountability for the actions of killer robots.

Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the campaign, says:

“An international ban treaty is the only effective way to deal with the serious challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons.”

For the NGO, a “Meaningful Human Control” of weapons should be a key concept in such a treaty.