November 10, 2023
At a Glance
- U.N. members voted to apply international law to autonomous weapons but stopped short of banning them.
In a first, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution that calls for international law to apply to lethal autonomous weapons systems. But member states fell short of banning them.
The vote was 164 nations in favor of resolution L.56, which outlines the opportunities and challenges posed by new technologies like AI and autonomy in weapons systems. It said the U.N. Charter, international humanitarian law and international human rights law in particular apply to autonomous weapons.
The resolution was tabled by Austria, with some 43 co-sponsoring it. It is the first-ever General Assembly resolution focused solely on autonomous weapons. The final version expresses concern about potential negative consequences but falls short of calling for a ban. The U.S., United Kingdom, Ukraine and Germany were among the nations who supported the resolution. Five states voted against it: India, Russia, Belarus, Mali and Niger. There were eight abstentions: China, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, Turkey and UAE. The voting results can be found here.
The resolution apparently left some ambiguity to the definition of autonomous weapons. This may be partly because their capabilities are still evolving. There are drones used by global militaries like China, Russia and Ukraine, but these are largely human-operated – though some have autonomous capabilities.
There are drone swam concepts, which are small bomb-laden drones that cooperate to attack a target en masse, exploding upon impact. There are also unmanned combat vehicles, like those in U.S. tests in 2021 or further along the development life, like Russia’s Uran-9 UCGV, which was brought into the army's official roster a few months before its illegal invasion of Ukraine.
And there is the idea of fitting weapons atop quadrupedal robots like Spot from Boston Dynamics. The Hyundai-owned company pledged not to use its bots for war, but rival quadrupedal robot makers Ghost Dynamics’ units are being used by the U.S. military.
What UN members agreed on
The agreed resolution calls for further dialogue to create a common understanding of the terminology and wider challenges posed by such weapons. To engage that dialogue, it requests the U.N. Secretary-General to seek Member States' views on autonomous weapons and submit a report.
Autonomous weapons will also be among the items on the General Assembly's agenda for its 79th session in September 2024.
Responding to the vote, the group Stop Killer Robots said support for the resolution “demonstrates widespread desire from states to make progress towards new international law.”
The passing of the resolution follows recent calls from Secretary-General António Guterres for a legally binding rule on autonomous weapons by 2026. That call was made during the first-ever U.N. Security Council meeting on AI, which took place in July.
International rules on autonomous weapons have been bandied around for the best part of a decade. A ban was on the table back in 2021 but major powers voted it down.
Militaries have since moved forward with autonomous weapon plans. The U.S. alone allocated some $18 billion for research into related technologies from 2016 to 2020. The Pentagon has since expanded its AI efforts to challenge China, such as with its Replicator program of using many small, cheap autonomous drones to overwhelm a target.
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