Development of New Warfare Technologies Like ‘Killer Robots’ Raises Concerns in First Committee about Machines Taking ‘Life-and-Death’ Decisions

GA/DIS/3502
14 October 2014
Sixty-ninth session, 7th Meeting (PM)

Development of New Warfare Technologies Like ‘Killer Robots’ Raises Concerns in First Committee about Machines Taking ‘Life-and-Death’ Decisions

The development of new technologies of warfare, including autonomous weapons or ”killer robots” and cyberwarfare, raised fundamental concerns about the acceptability of allowing machines to independently take life-and-death decisions, the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) heard today.

As States and observers from diverse regions drew attention to new security challenges in the digital age, a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross said such weapons “must be held to international humanitarian law”.  The unique characteristics and foreseeable impact of new warfare technologies raised questions about whether existing legal rules were sufficiently clear.

She said that, although there was no universally accepted definition of an “autonomous weapon system”, common to all proposed definitions was the capability of independently attacking targets without human intervention.  There was a danger that increasing autonomy in the critical functions of weapons systems — to search for, identify, select and attack targets — would substitute human decision-making with that of machines.

There was “no doubt”, said Argentina’s representative, about the urgency of addressing the issue of information and communication technologies in the context of security.  Maintaining appropriate levels of security in the “digital universe” was essential for information and communications technologies to achieve their full potential and contribute to economic, social and cultural progress.

She said she believed, like others, that the development of the “Internet of things” — the increase of Internet-connected objects and devices — would lead to a doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

Yet despite an increasingly digitized world, Sweden’s representative said his country believed in an approach to disarmament and international security that “puts human beings front and centre of policy”.  The goal was to put in place a global framework of mutually reinforcing and complementary treaties, commitments and institutions to ensure that everyone enjoyed the right to be safe and secure.

An observer for the Holy See said the international community should not neglect the broader goal of “building a world less reliant on the use of force”. Greed fuelled arms sales, and those sales in turn fuelled conflicts, which caused “untold suffering and violations of human rights”.  For as long as a high quantity of weapons was in circulation, new grounds could be found to initiate hostilities and perpetrate violence against innocent populations, he warned.

Although the work of the First Committee was extremely challenging, he said, the international community must never despair.  Despite stalemates and setbacks, “constant drops of water patiently melting the hardest rock inspire us all to go forward in the midst of slow progress”.

Also speaking were representatives of Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Armenia, El Salvador, Portugal and Afghanistan.

The First Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. on 15 October to conclude its general debate.

Background

The First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) met this morning to continue its general debate.  For background, see Press Release GA/DIS/3497.

Statements

MAUNG WAI (Myanmar), associating with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), warned that the weaponization of outer space would lead to an arms race.  The prevention of an arms race was a critical issue on the United Nations disarmament and arms control agenda and one of the four core issues before the Conference on Disarmament.  Myanmar supported calls for the commencement of negotiations on a universal, legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.  Further, his delegation would explore the possibility of either co-sponsoring or supporting the draft resolution entitled “No first placement of weapons in outer space”.

Continuing to place trust and confidence in the relevancy and validity of the Conference on Disarmament, he said that body had taken some small steps this year through the re-establishment of an informal working group, but that progress was not enough.  However, instead of blaming the Conference, creative solutions should be sought to overcome the status quo.  The Conference was not alone in lacking tangible progress.  Indeed, the United Nations disarmament machinery as a whole had been stagnant.  A fourth special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament would have the authority and legitimacy to comprehensively review the functioning of the entire disarmament machinery.

SINBAD MEME (Democratic Republic of the Congo), associating with the African Union and Non-Aligned Movement, said that the First Committee remained an ideal framework for holding discussions on issues relating to disarmament, peace and security.  At the same time, there was a stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament due to a lack of political will.  Meanwhile, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remained a permanent concern.  Concluding a convention banning nuclear weapons remained an urgent priority.  Such an instrument should address nuclear technologies and their transfer, in a way that allowed peaceful nuclear energy use.  A nuclear weapons ban must follow the path traced by chemical weapons, which had created a momentum of global solidarity, with satisfying results for all.

GIRMA ASMEROM TESFAY (Eritrea), associating with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab Group, said that international and regional security and disarmament could best be addressed when negotiated multilaterally through transparent, comprehensive and non-discriminatory instruments.  The desire for a shared future and the increasing complexities of international security must compel political will in order to agree on a core agenda and commence substantive discussions.  On conventional weapons, he noted that much of the destruction, instability, underdevelopment, spread of extremism and terrorism in his region were by-products of or exacerbated by the unregulated and illicit movement of small arms and light weapons.  In that regard, he stressed the need to maintain the fundamental elements of the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action.

Advancement in science and technology were main drivers of human progress, he said.  As witnessed in recent years, modern technology had the potential to be used for illegal purposes by State and non-State actors alike to undermine the economy and security of nations.  Thus, there was an urgent need to collectively address the use of technology for destructive purposes.

TIGRAN SAMVELIAN (Armenia) said that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was an essential foundation for the non-proliferation regime, and upholding its three pillars was more urgent than ever.  Security Council resolution 1540 (2004) was a primary tool to fight the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.  The entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), long overdue, would be decisive towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.  He regarded the Conventional Weapons Convention and the Mine-Ban Convention as essential tools to eliminate certain categories of weapons, whose use had negative outcomes that far outweighed their military significance.

GABRIELA MARTINIC (Argentina), associating with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), said that “rhetoric must be set aside” on nuclear disarmament in order to achieve the entry into force of the CTBT, the establishment of a Middle East zone free from nuclear weapons, and the start of negotiations on a fissile material ban.

She said she believed, like others, that the development of the “Internet of things” would lead to a doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.  As such, there was little doubt about the urgency of addressing the issue of information and communication technologies.  At the same time, the aims of appropriate levels of security in the “digital universe” were essential for information and communications technologies to achieve their full potential, thus contributing to humanity’s economic, social and cultural progress.  She assured the Committee Chair of her delegation’s cooperation and hoped that at the end of the session, Committee members, echoing the words of Bob Marley, would say “everything will be all right”.

RUBEN ZAMORA (El Salvador) supported the objective of building a “universal machinery” that would prevent the use of nuclear weapons.  Though his country did not produce those weapons, he knew that their use would have catastrophic consequences.  It was extremely important to support any initiative that sought to eradicate weapons of mass destruction.  Today, more than ever, it was extremely important to strengthen the three pillars of the NPT.  It was a pivotal moment, and he expressed disappointment at the inaction.  Human development and security were complementary, and all people around the world should be able to enjoy their rights and contribute to socioeconomic development.  The illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons fuelled a culture of violence and impunity, and the international community should spare no effort to combat that scourge.  The global problems of development, poverty eradication and the elimination of diseases were all linked to disarmament, and for that reason, he urged the international community to take appropriate measures.

MÅRTEN GRUNDITZ (Sweden), associating with the European Union, said his country believed in an approach to disarmament and international security that “puts human beings front and centre of policy”.  The goal was to put in place an international framework of mutually reinforcing and complementary treaties, commitments and institutions to ensure that everyone enjoyed the right to be safe and secure.  The continued existence of nuclear weapons contravened that approach as they posed an inherent risk to human life on the planet — a risk over which the majority had no say.  While the goal of a nuclear-free world was shared by most, “cold-war postures” remained in place, preventing concrete steps from being made.  Sustainable security was built through cooperation, rather than in isolation against an adversary, he warned.

Attaining sustainable safety and security for all reached beyond Earth, he said, explaining that a growing number of human endeavours were dependent on space-based infrastructure.  Those activities were rapidly increasing in scope and had contributed to the development and welfare of societies around the world.  However, the increased use of outer space called for new rules of conduct to ensure that activities were conducted in a sustainable manner, he said.

ÁLVARO MENDONÇA E MOURA (Portugal) said the strong, transparent and effective implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty would make a valuable contribution to fostering peace and security, and would have an important humanitarian impact, particularly in regions affected by conflict and extremist threats.  The Treaty would also help to foster dialogue, multilateralism and confidence-building between all relevant actors and improve the international security environment.

Portugal maintained a long-standing demand to begin negotiations to enlarge the Conference on Disarmament, he said.  The situation violated the basic non-discrimination required of a multilateral United Nations body.  The Conference remained in an agonizing and frustrating stalemate, and a joint commitment and constructive work were urgently required to overcome it.  Some progress had been achieved this year, which would hopefully encourage further impetus and closer cooperation to succeed in improving the international multilateral mechanisms.

ARCHBISHOP BERNARDITO CLEOPAS AUZA, Permanent Observer for the Holy See, said that while the inability of nuclear-weapon States to negotiate reductions in their stockpiles was disturbing, the modernization and proliferation of those arms was even more troubling.  At the same time, the international community should not neglect the broader goal of “building a world less reliant on the use of force”.  The Holy See welcomed progress in the area of conventional weapons, but remained deeply concerned that their flow continued to exacerbate conflicts around the globe.  Greed fuelled arms sales, he reminded the Committee, and those sales in turn fuelled conflicts, which caused “untold suffering and violations of human rights” around the world.  For as long as a high quantity of weapons was in circulation, new grounds could be found to initiate hostilities and perpetrate violence against innocent populations, he warned.

He said that, although the work of the First Committee was extremely challenging, the international community must never despair.  Despite stalemates and setbacks, “constant drops of water patiently melting the hardest rock inspire us all to go forward in the midst of slow progress”.

KATHLEEN LAWAND, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the threat of nuclear weapons remained a serious concern in humanitarian terms, and it was difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with international humanitarian law.  Evidence of the immediate and long-term effects of their use, including through accidental detonation, made nuclear disarmament a humanitarian imperative.

There continued to be much international debate about new technologies of warfare, including autonomous weapons and cyberwarfare, she went on, adding that the development of such weapons was not happening in a legal vacuum.  As with any new weapon, means or method of warfare, weapons use must be held to international humanitarian law, in particular to the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack.  However, the unique characteristics and foreseeable impact of the new technologies of warfare raised questions about whether existing legal rules were sufficiently clear.  She welcomed the international community’s increased attention to autonomous weapons systems, including in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

She added that, although there was no universally accepted definition of an “autonomous weapon system”, common to all proposed definitions was the capability of independently attacking targets without human intervention.  There was a danger that increasing autonomy in the critical functions of weapons systems — to search for, identify, select and attack targets — would substitute human decision-making with that of machines.  That posed significant legal and ethical concerns.  Beyond doubts of legal compliance were the fundamental concerns about the ethical and moral acceptability of allowing machines to independently take life-and-death decisions.

ZAHIR TANIN (Afghanistan), associating with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that multinational diplomacy was an important principle in advancing international security and was imperative to avoid the use of nuclear weapons.  The only guarantee of the non-use of nuclear weapons was their destruction, he said, urging a binding instrument for their prohibition.  In order to further the objectives of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, his country supported the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.  Any delay ran contrary to commitments made at the 2010 review.  The entry into force of the CTBT would further reduce the proliferation of those “inhumane” weapons.

He said that 2014 was the deadliest year for the Afghan people since 2001.  The use of high-explosive systems by terrorists and the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices by extremists groups caused overwhelming loss of life.  Moreover, Afghanistan had been one of the biggest victims of small arms and light weapons use.  Despite progress, challenges arising from the illicit spread of those weapons in conflict and post-conflict regions persisted. 

For information media. Not an official record.