Commentary: Missile used to kill Al-Qaeda leader part of a scary new generation of unregulated weapons

In 2014 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought experts together to identify issues raised by autonomous weapon systems. In 2020 the ICRC and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute went further, bringing together international experts to identify what controls on autonomous weapon systems would be needed.

In 2022, discussions are ongoing between countries the UN first brought together in 2017. This group of governmental experts continues to debate the development and use of lethal autonomous weapon systems. However, there has still been no international agreement on a new law or treaty to limit their use.


The campaign group, Stop the Killer Robots, has called throughout this period for an international ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems. Not only has that not happened, there is an undeclared stalemate in the UN’s discussions on autonomous weapons in Geneva.

Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea and the US have opposed a new treaty or political declaration. Opposing them at the same talks, 125 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement are calling for legally binding restrictions on lethal autonomous weapon systems.

With Russia, China, US, UK and France all having a UN Security Council veto, they can prevent such a binding law on autonomous weapons.

Outside these international talks and campaigning organisations, independent experts are proposing alternatives. For example, in 2019, ethicist Deane-Peter Baker brought together the Canberra Working Group to produce a report, Guiding Principles for the Development and Use of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems.

These principles do not solve the political impasse between superpowers. But if autonomous weapons are here to stay then it is an early attempt to understand what new rules will be needed.

When Pandora’s mythical box was opened, untold horrors were unleashed on the world. Emerging weapon systems are all too real. Like Pandora, all we are left with is hope.

Peter Lee is Professor of Applied Ethics and Director, Security and Risk Research at the University of Portsmouth. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.