UN to Address Autonomous Weapons Systems

December 2023
By Michael T. Klare

The First Committee of the UN General Assembly, which is responsible for international security and disarmament affairs, has adopted a draft resolution calling for the secretary-general to conduct a comprehensive study of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt says that in calling for a study of lethal autonomous weapons systems, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly is hoping to lay the ground for regulating these systems. (Photo by Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)The measure was approved on Oct. 12 by an overwhelming 164-5 vote, suggesting that it will be adopted by the full assembly before it adjourns in December. Eight UN member states abstained.

The committee action marked the first time that the UN has addressed the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems, which are governed by artificial intelligence (AI) rather than human operators.

In conducting the study, the secretary-general is instructed to consult the views of member states and civil society “on ways to address the related challenges and concerns they raise [regarding the use of autonomous weapons] from humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspectives.”

A final report is to be readied for the 2024 session of the General Assembly, where further action on these systems
is expected.

“The objective is obviously to move forward on regulating autonomous weapons systems,” Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Arms Control Today in an email. “The resolution makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of states wants to address this issue with urgency.” Austria was one of the lead sponsors of the proposed measure.

In calling for the study, the resolution notes that considerable disquiet has arisen among UN member states over the ethical, legal, and humanitarian implications of deploying machines with the capacity to take human lives. Concerns also have emerged over the “impact of autonomous weapon systems on global security and regional and international stability,” the resolution states. In seeking the views of member states and civil society on the use of such systems, the secretary-general is specifically instructed to solicit feedback on those concerns.

Although the resolution would not impose any specific limitations on the use of these systems, as some governments and civil society organizations have demanded, it demonstrates the desire of many states to create options for more vigorous UN action on the topic.

Until now, international efforts to control the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems have centered largely around negotiations in Geneva to ban such systems in accordance with the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). That treaty is designed to prohibit or restrict the use of munitions that cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or indiscriminately affect civilians.

Civil society organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, have joined with representatives of Austria, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and numerous other governments to press for the adoption of an “additional protocol” under the CCW restricting the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems or banning them altogether. But because decisions at meetings of the treaty’s state-parties are made by consensus, Russian and U.S. opposition to binding measures in this area has stymied these efforts. (See ACT, April 2023.)

In light of this impasse, proponents of a ban or restrictions on these systems have turned to the General Assembly as a potential arena for achieving progress on the issue because decisions there are made by majority vote, not consensus, and support for such measures appears to be strong, given the lopsided vote in favor of the Oct. 12 resolution.

“Unfortunately, some states seem intent on continuing discussions in Geneva but not to allow progress towards negotiations of a legally binding instrument,” Kmentt observed. “Even if we can’t reflect any substantive progress in the discussions in Geneva, UN member states now have this other avenue to clearly reflect and express what they think ought to be done on this extremely crucial issue.”

Kmentt also noted that the resolution calls for a wider discussion of lethal autonomous weapons systems and the risks they pose than has been conducted at the negotiations in Geneva. “Humanity is about to cross a major threshold of profound importance when the decision over life and death is no longer taken by humans but made on the basis of pre-programmed algorithms, [raising] fundamental ethical issues,” he wrote in his email. “The resolution and the mandated report will hopefully broaden the international debate.”