A resolution on autonomous weapons systems initially only formulates warnings; a legally binding instrument is planned for 2026. The vote could provide the necessary tailwind for this.
On Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a critical resolution on “Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems” (LAWS) by a large majority. The states emphasised that the international community urgently needs to address the challenges and concerns related to these systems. This refers to combat robots that autonomously locate and attack targets in the air, on land or at sea.
The text of the first UN resolution of this kind was drawn up by a cross-regional group of states. It was then introduced by Austria and a group of 43 states. The vote took place in a sub-committee, where 164 states voted in favour, five against and eight abstained. Those in favour included Germany and the USA, while those abstaining included China, Israel and Iran.
The resolution also specifically addresses the use of artificial intelligence in autonomous weapons systems. This raises questions from a humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspective, it says. The signatories are concerned about the possible negative consequences and effects of LAWS on global security and warn of the risk of a new arms race. The use of these systems also lowers the conflict threshold in wars and promotes proliferation, including to non-state actors.
However, the resolution has hardly any concrete consequences beyond the warnings. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres is called upon to draw up a report. This is to present the perspectives of the member and observer states on autonomous weapons systems and possibilities. The report should also analyse humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical issues. International and regional organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the arms industry, will also be able to comment on this.
Next year, the UN General Assembly will then address the issue. The UN Secretary-General has called on the member states to adopt a “legally binding instrument” for autonomous weapons systems by 2026.
“The vote was an important and historic milestone towards our goal of a binding instrument under international law,” says Marius Pletsch. He is involved in the international “Stop Killer Robots” campaign on behalf of the German Peace Organisation – United Opponents of Military Service. The campaign includes a coalition of more than 250 civil society organisations from 70 countries. The resolution has given the campaign a broad picture of the voting behaviour of the states for the first time, says Pletsch. This provides the necessary tailwind for the goal proclaimed by Guterres for 2026.
However, there is a problem in the debate on autonomous weapon systems: these are defined differently. Germany, for example, which expressly supports the resolution now passed, only wants to include fully automatic systems. With this justification, drones, which are currently being procured by the Bundeswehr in various sizes, should not be included.
But such drones can be programmed to attack specific targets. If they engage them without human intervention, they are therefore killer robots. The planned binding UN resolution cannot ignore this.
Published in German in „nd“.
Image: Not yet fully autonomous, but definitely a combat robot: Drone tanks from Rheinmetall (Rheinmetall Canada).