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UN talks fail to reach common agreement on ‘killer robots’

Negotiations on the use of autonomous weapons, which could lead to new international treaties, face opposition from countries such as Russia and the United States, among others.

Countries and activists have expressed dismay after UN negotiations on autonomous weapons systems – often called “killer robots” – failed to lead to negotiations for an international convention aimed at to control their use, due to objections from countries that manufacture these weapons.

Unlike existing semi-autonomous weapons, such as drones, fully autonomous weapons do not have a human-operated “kill button”, but rely on sensors, software and automatic processes to determine whether a target should be killed or not.

Regulating autonomous weapons is an absolute emergency according to the UN

Since a United Nations panel of experts reported in March that the first autonomous drone attack may have taken place in Libya, regulation of the sector has taken on new importance and urgency.

This week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the 125 signatory countries to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to develop an “ambitious plan” for new regulation of the use of conventional weapons.

However, on Friday, the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to agree on a timetable for continued discussions on the development and use of autonomous weapons systems lethal weapons, often known as LAWS.

A number of countries that have already made significant investments in the development of LAWS were present at the five-day summit in Geneva, which prevented the majority of participants from agreeing on the steps to be taken to establish legally binding regulations on machine-operated weapons.

According to sources who spoke to the Reuters news agency after the negotiations, Russia, India and the United States were among the countries that expressed opposition to a new pact on LAWS.

The United States highlighted the benefits of LAWS, including accuracy.

“At the current pace, technical development risks outpacing our discussions,” Swiss disarmament ambassador Felix Baumann said in a statement expressing his dissatisfaction with the conclusion of the UN intergovernmental group, which has been meeting since eight years.

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Negotiations that end in failure

Sixty-eight countries have urged the adoption of a legal instrument at the United Nations, while a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are fighting the unregulated proliferation of these weapons and advocating for new laws.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and New Zealand Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control Phil Twyford have both called for new international treaties governing autonomous weapons systems.

Norway and Germany have both pledged to take action on the issue as part of their new government coalition agreements.

In a statement released after the discussions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was disappointed with this decision.

After a week of discussions, Neil Davison of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said he was disappointed with the conclusion. “It’s a real missed opportunity, and it’s not, in our view, what’s needed to address the threats posed by autonomous weapons,” he said.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child has once again proven its inability to make real progress,” said Verity Coyle, senior advisor at Amnesty International.

Activists now say a mechanism separate from the long series of UN negotiations on the subject may be necessary to ensure future progress on the matter.

According to Mr. Coyle, “it is high time that committed governments took the lead in an external approach that could bring about the kind of progress we have already seen on landmines and cluster bombs.” He also noted that the window of opportunity to regulate is becoming more limited.

Richard Moyes, coordinator of Stop Killer Robots, said governments “should create a moral and legal boundary for humanity against the killing of humans by technology” to protect human life.

“A clear majority of nations recognize the need to ensure effective human control over the use of force.”

Killer robots have the potential to have devastating humanitarian effects, and it is time they took the lead,” Ms Moyes said.