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Pandemic delays UN discussion on killer robots

Human Rights Watch issues report showing concerns over fully autonomous weapons, or killer robots, rising

Peter Kenny   | 10.08.2020
Pandemic delays UN discussion on killer robots

Geneve

GENEVA

COVID-19 has delayed the first 2020 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on killer robots, to have opened at the UN in Geneva on Monday, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report showing that fully autonomous weapons' concerns are rising.

The report -- "Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control" -- reviews the 97 countries' policies that have publicly elaborated their views on killer robots since 2013.

"Normally we'd be in Geneva, releasing this report ... for a diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapon systems which was supposed to open this week -- delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Mary Wareham, the HRW arms advocacy director.

The discussions seem to be delayed to November, so "it could be a lost year for diplomacy," she said.

Wareham is the coordinator of the HRW Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and spoke in a videoconference organized by the Geneva UN press association (ACANU).

She said 97 countries' active engagement in the CCW talks demonstrates growing concerns about removing human control from the use of force that can involve a variety of weapons, including drones.

"There is widespread acknowledgment that technological developments are enabling militaries to incorporate autonomy into weapons systems. China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the UK, and US are investing heavily in the development of various autonomous weapons systems.

"Australia, Turkey, and other countries are also making investments," says HRW.

The report shows that rising concerns over fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapon systems and Wareham it illustrates how these "have risen up the multilateral agenda."

That led "to the UN General Assembly last September, the Alliance for multilateralism initiative by Germany and France included killer robots alongside climate change as an urgent international issue that is a grave threat to humanity that deserves multilateral action," said Wareham.

She said that while 97 countries have spoken on killer robots since 2013, it leaves half the world's countries that have not given their views, hence the report.

Decisions at the CCW are taken by consensus, so a few or even a single country can block progress measures on the regulation of killer robots, and the US and Russia lead the blocking.

"The US and Russia are investing heavily in military applications of artificial intelligence they're developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapon systems.

"It's not just Russia and the US. However, we also see this happening in China, Israel, South Korea, and certain European nations, however, proliferation is not widespread.

"Removing human control from the use of force is now widely regarded as a grave threat to humanity that, like climate change, deserves urgent multilateral action," said Wareham.

HRW says that in November 2013, Turkey supported a proposal to begin multilateral talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems and that Turkey has participated in every CCW meeting on killer robots in 2014-2019.

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