UN disarmament body calls for global action on autonomous weapons

A United Nations (UN) body has approved a draft resolution on the negative impacts of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered weapons systems, saying there is an “urgent need” for international action to address the challenges and concerns they present.

Otherwise known as lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), such systems are able to select, detect and engage targets with little or no human intervention.

At the start of November 2023, the UN’s First Committee – which deals with issues around disarmament and international security – overwhelmingly voted in favour of the resolution, with 164 votes for; five against; and eight abstentions.

Spearheaded by Austria, the resolution noted that its sponsors are “mindful of the serious challenges and concerns that new technological applications [represent] in the military domain”, and that they are “concerned about the possible negative consequences … [of LAWS] on global security and regional and international stability, including the risk of an emerging arms race, lowering the threshold for conflict and proliferation”.

The draft resolution now passed specifically requests that UN secretary-general António Guterres seeks the views of member states on LAWS, as well as their views on “ways to address the related challenges and concerns they raise from humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspectives and on the role of humans in the use of force”.

These views should be reflected in a “substantive report” that reflects the full range of perspectives given, so that member states can use it as a discussion point in the next session of the General Assembly – the UN’s main deliberative and policy making body.

As part of this opinion-gathering exercise, the secretary-general is also being asked by the First Committee to invite the views of various international and regional organisations, civil society groups, members of the scientific community and representatives from industry, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically.

The resolution also states the First Committee will include a session on LAWS in its agenda for the next session, starting in 2024. As a draft resolution, it will now go to the General Assembly for its consideration and action.

While UN resolutions are formal expressions of the opinions or will of the UN bodies that created them, and outline what actions are going to be taken if adopted, only resolutions from the UN Security Council are binding, with most being used as consensus-building instruments.

On 5 October 2023, Guterres and ICRC president Mirjana Spoljaric issued a joint call urging world leaders to launch negotiations on a new legally binding instrument to set clear prohibitions and restrictions for LAWS, and to conclude these negotiations by 2026.

“In the current security landscape, setting clear international red lines will benefit all States,” they said.

In a blog post on the resolution, the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – part of an international coalition of NGOs organising to place limits on LAWS – said that while it does not call for negotiations, it is a “significant step forward” in creating a legal framework that ensures meaningful human control of force.

Chris Cole, executive director of Drone Wars, a member organisation of the Campaign, said: “The passing of this resolution is an important step forward in the campaign to ban Killer Robots as it mandates the Secretary General to seek the views of states and others on the way forward. It’s really important now that we ensure that the public’s concerns about the humanitarian, ethical and security impacts are heard and relayed by the British government, and not just the voices of those with a vested interest in developing the technology.”

Member state positions

According to a UN meeting report breaking down the First Committee session, the governments that voted against the resolution are Belarus, India, Mali, Niger and Russia, while those that abstained are China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates.

The same report also ran through the positions of different members states on the resolution. Egypt’s representative, for example, said algorithms must never be in full control of decisions that involve killing or harming humans, and that principles of human responsibility and accountability must be preserved in the use of lethal force, regardless of the type of weapons system being used.

They added that even if an algorithm can determine what is legal under international humanitarian law, it can never determine what is ethical.

While Russia and the US voted in different directions, representatives for both countries stressed that they were not in favour of creating any parallel processes that would undermine the work of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which has been in force since 1983 and seeks to prohibit or restrict the use of weapons deemed excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

Other countries – including China, South Korea, South Africa, Australia and Pakistan – similarly argued for the CCW as the most appropriate forum to deal with issues around LAWS, although the representative from Egypt noted that progress through this avenue has been minimal and no tangible results have yet been reached.

They said it was “due to some states’ continued misguided belief that absolute dominance in these domains can be maintained”.

The representative from Argentina said their delegation voted in favour of the resolution to give greater visibility to the issue and renew impetus to current discussions, and further underscored the importance of hearing from states and interested parties who do not typically participate in CCW discussions (as did representatives from Indonesia and Egypt).

They also highlighted that Argentina, alongside other countries, has submitted a legally binding instrument to the CCW that would create an additional protocol to establish prohibitions and regulations on emerging technologies related to LAWS.


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