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Countries on the UN’s weapon committee are meeting to regulate the development of ‘killer robots’

A UN committee on weapons is meeting this week to regulate the development of 'killer robots'.
A UN committee on weapons is meeting this week to regulate the development of 'killer robots'. Copyright EBU
Copyright EBU
By Marie LecoqAP
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A UN committee on weapons is meeting this week to regulate the development of “killer robots”. But some world powers oppose any strict limit or ban on such weapons.


Until recently, killer robots were something only found in sci-fi films but advances in technology mean that they could soon become a reality - if not already.

Countries behind a United Nations agreement on weapons have been meeting this week on the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), which advocacy groups want to strictly limit or ban.

Unlike conventional weapons which are operated by humans, autonomous weapons, or "killer robots” as they have become known as, would have some autonomous decision-making ability and capacity to act without any human intervention.

The latest conference of countries behind The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, or CCW, is tackling an array of issues from incendiary weapons, explosive remnants of war, a specific category of landmines, and the lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

"It's essentially a really critical opportunity for states to take steps to regulate and prohibit autonomy in weapons systems, which in essence means killer robots or weapons systems that are going to operate without meaningful human control," said Clare Conboy, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Stop Killer Robots.

The CCW, which seeks to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons considered excessively injurious, was adopted in 1980 by a total of 50 states.

Opponents of LAWS fear the arrival of a dystopia when tanks, submarines, robots or fleets of drones with facial-recognition software could roam without human oversight and strike against human targets. Some say that this seemingly futuristic technology may already quietly exist.

"When you look at removing a human being from the decision to use force, you're removing their ability to use context, to use training, to understand how and when they should, you should apply force. And of course, the result of that is a loss of civilian life and greater casualties around the world," said Conboy.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also cautioned earlier this month that the loss of human control and judgment raised “serious concerns from humanitarian, legal and ethical perspectives."

Howerever, some world powers oppose any binding or non-voluntary constraints on the development of autonomous weapons in fear that if they can't develop such weapons themselves, their enemies might.

Some countries also argue there is a fine line between autonomous weapons systems and computer-aided targeting and weapons systems that exist already.

The United States has called for a "code of conduct" governing the use of such systems, while Russia has argued that current international law is sufficient.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a statement delivered on his behalf at Monday's meeting, urged the conference on CCW to "swiftly advance its work on autonomous weapons that can choose targets and kill people without human interference".

The talks are scheduled to run through Friday, although it is unlikely that the countries will reach a consensus on the issue.

Journalist • Marie Lecoq

Video editor • Marie Lecoq

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