UN talks in Geneva aim to stop ‘killer robots’

Armies of Terminator-like warriors fan out across the battlefield, destroying everything in their path, as swarms of fellow robots rain fire from the skies.

UN talks in Geneva aim to stop 'killer robots'
Photo: Carl Court/AFP/File

That dark vision could all too easily shift from science fiction to fact with disastrous consequences for the human race, unless such weapons are banned before they leap from the drawing board to the arsenal, campaigners warn.
On Tuesday, governments begin holding the first-ever talks focussed exclusively on so-called "lethal autonomous robots".
The four-day session of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva could chart the path towards preventing the nightmare scenario evoked by opponents, ahead of a fresh session in November.
"Killer robots would threaten the most fundamental of rights and principles in international law," warned Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch.
"We don't see how these inanimate machines could understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away," he told reporters on the eve of the talks.
"The only answer is a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons," he added.
Goose's organization came together with a host of others to form the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots in April 2013, prodding nations into action.
Robot weapons are already deployed around the globe.
The best-known are drones, unmanned aircraft whose human controllers push the trigger from a far-distant base. Controversy rages, especially over the civilian collateral damage caused when the United States strikes alleged Islamist militants.
Perhaps closest to the Terminator-type killing machine portrayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger's action films is a Samsung sentry robot used in South Korea, with the ability to spot unusual activity, talk to intruders and, when authorized by a human controller, shoot them.
Then there is the Phalanx gun system, deployed on US Navy ships, which can search for enemy fire and destroy incoming projectiles all by itself, or the X47B, a plane-sized drone able to take off and land on aircraft carriers without a pilot and even refuel in the air.
Other countries on the cutting edge include Britain, Israel, China, Russia and Taiwan.
But it's the next step, the power to kill without a human handler, that rattles opponents of lethal autonomous robots the most.
"Checking the legitimacy of targets and determining proportional response requires deliberative reasoning," said Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at Britain's University of Sheffield.
Experts predict that military research could produce such killers within 20 years, leaving current systems looking as obsolete as steam engines.

Power of life and death 

Supporters of robot weapons say they offer life-saving potential in warfare, being able to get closer than troops to assess a threat properly, without tiring, becoming frightened or letting emotion cloud their decision-making.
But that is precisely what worries their critics.
"It's totally unconscionable that human beings think that it's OK to cede the of power and life over other humans to machinery," said Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for a land-mine ban treaty.
"If we don't inject a moral and ethical discussion into this, we won't control warfare," she said.
In November 2012, Washington imposed a 10-year human-control requirement for robot weapons, welcomed by campaigners as a first step.
Britain has said that existing arms control rules are sufficient to stem the risks.
But opponents say a specific treaty is essential because unclear ground rules could leave dangerous loopholes, not only for their use in warfare but also in policing.
"We would like this week to begin to build a consensus around the concept that there must always be meaningful human control over targeting and kill decisions, on the battlefield and in law enforcement situations," said Goose.
"Trying to rely on existing international humanitarian or human rights law and perhaps some concept of best principles simply will not suffice to ensure that these weapons are never developed, never produced, never used," he said.
With robotics research also being deployed for fire-fighting and bomb disposal, Sharkey underlined that the objection is not to autonomy per se.
"I have a robot vacuum cleaner at home, it's fully autonomous and I do not want it stopped," he said.
"There is just one thing that we don't want, and that's what we call the kill function."

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IN PICTURES: Geneva, the world’s incubator for peace and policy since 1920

For the past century, Geneva has been at the heart of global diplomacy. The city hosts more than a dozen UN agencies and has been the centre point of many colossal global moments.

IN PICTURES: Geneva, the world's incubator for peace and policy since 1920
Good morning, Vietnam? International delegations at the Palace of Nations in Geneva in 1954 in discussions that led to the partitioning of Vietnam. Photo: AFP Photo.

From conflict resolution to global health epidemics, migration flows and even the weather, some of the world's major challenges are crisis-managed by UN agencies based in Geneva. The Swiss city is arguably the hub of global diplomacy.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 (based on earlier ones from 1864), a protocol for warfare ratified by 196 countries, were signed in the Swiss city.

Yet Geneva's pivotal role in global diplomacy stretches further back, to the League of Nations – predecessor of the United Nations (UN) – which was established in Geneva in 1920. After World War II, the 'Palais des Nations', built between 1929 and 1938 and currently undergoing renovation, was handed over to the UN. More than a dozen UN agencies have been established in Geneva since. 

The “Palais des Nations”, which houses the United Nations Offices, is seen at the end of the flag-lined front lawn on September 4, 2018 in Geneva. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP. 

Switzerland is a popular venue to sign treaties and hold peace talks because the country's neutrality has been widely accepted since the Treaty of Paris in 1815. Geneva has the UN infrastructure to bring warring factions together but it is also the incubator for new policy on everything from global health epidemics, refugee movement and security, protection of human rights, trade equality, aids prevention and social research.

The hub of all this global outlook is the Palais des Nations, or Palace of Nations, which, like the UN HQ in New York, is one of the iconic structures at the heart of global diplomacy. 

The “Palais des Nations”, which houses the United Nations Offices, is seen after sunset on September 28, 2018 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Every year, the 'Palais des Nations', the Palace of Nations, hosts more than 60,000 delegates participating in conferences as well as over 140,000 visitors to the building complex. The overall complex is 600 metres long, and houses 34 conference rooms and 2,800 offices.

So which UN agencies, commissions, institutes and organizations are based in Geneva and what do they actually do? Below is a brief timeline to help you navigate this complex web.

UN agencies based in Geneva – A timeline

1919: International Labour Organization (ILO), founded in Geneva

“The ILO was founded in 1919, in the wake of a destructive war, to pursue a vision based on the premise that universal, lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice,” states the ILO's website. The ILO became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946. The main aims of the ILO are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

The logo of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is seen on the opening day of the annual International Labour Conference of the United Nations specialized agency 30 May 2007 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

1920: League of Nations, predecessor to the UN, headquartered in the Swiss city. 

The League of Nations, a predecessor to the UN, lasted from 1920 to 1946, when it was dissolved and later reconstructed as the UN after World War II. 

Picture taken on September 1935 of the League of Nations assembly, in Geneva. Photo: AFP. 

1946: United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), founded and headquartered in the 'Palais des Nations'

The second most important UN building after the HQ in New York, UNOG, headquartered at the Palace of Nations, employs 1,600 people and hosts 8,000 meetings a year. It serves as the representative office of the Secretary-General in Geneva and “is the biggest duty station outside of United Nations headquarters in New York,” states UNOG's website. “Working for peace, rights and well-being” is the agency's motto. 

The 'Palace of Nations', home to UNOG since 1946. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

1947: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) founded and headquartered in Geneva.

One of five regional UN bodies, “UNECE facilitates greater economic integration and cooperation among its member countries and promotes sustainable development and economic prosperity through” through policy dialogues, technical exchanges and “exchange and application of best practices.”As of 2016, the organization had 56 members.

1948: World Health Organization (WHO) founded and headquartered in Geneva. 

General view during the opening day of the 61st World Health Organization (WHO) assembly on May 19, 2008 in Geneva. Food security, climate change and pandemic flu are three global crises looming in the horizon which could undo progress in public health, the World Health Organization's director general said. Chan was addressing delegates from 193 member states attending the WHO's annual general assembly which runs from May 19-24 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / Fabrice Coffrini.

The WHO observes global health trends, shapes research and policy on global health issues and assists in the coordination and response to global health epidemics. More than 7,000 people work for the WHO in 150 countries worldwide. 

1950: UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

The building of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters, an agency mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Created in the aftermath of WWII “to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes”, UNHCR offers support o refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), the stateless, asylum seekers and returnees. Since its inception in 1950, UNHCR has safeguarded 50 million refugees, according to data on the agency's website. There are currently 68.5 million forcibly-displaced people in the world. 

1950: World Meteorological Organization (WMO), established and headquartered in Geneva

The WMO is a UN agency which “provides world leadership and expertise in international cooperation in the delivery and use of high-quality, authoritative weather, climate, hydrological and related environmental services,” according to its website

1951: International Organization for Migration (IOM), established and headquartered in Geneva

Not technically a UN agency, the IOM is linked to the UN's work through a unique agreement of its kind. The IOM, an inter-governmental organization with 172 member states, “is dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all,” states the IOM's website

Employees of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) assist Ethiopian migrants to board a ship repatriating them home via Djibouti, in Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida on June 2, 2018. Photo: Abdo Hyder/AFP.

1963: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) established in Geneva. 

“Through our work we aim to ensure that social equity, inclusion and justice are central to development thinking, policy and practice,” states UNRISD's website

1963: United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAD) headquartered in Geneva. 

UNITAR is “a training arm of the United Nations System, and has the mandate to enhance the effectiveness of the UN through diplomatic training, and to increase the impact of national actions through public awareness-raising, education and training of public policy officials,” states its website

1964: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) headquartered in Geneva. 

UNCTAD helps ensure poorer countries get a voice in key global economic arguments. “We support developing countries to access the benefits of a globalized economy more fairly and effectively. And we help equip them to deal with the potential drawbacks of greater economic integration. To do this, we provide analysis, facilitate consensus-building, and offer technical assistance. This helps them to use trade, investment, finance, and technology as vehicles for inclusive and sustainable development,” states UNCTAD's website.

Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon listens to one of the speeches during the opening ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Accra, Ghana, on April 20, 2008.

UNCTAD also publishes reports, such as the 2018 Review of Maritime Transport. The latest edition analyses how trade wars could have an impact on global maritime transport, which accounts for 80 per cent of the goods moved worldwide. 

1967: World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), created and headquartered in Geneva

WIPA's “mission is to lead the development of a balanced and effective international intellectual property (IP) system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all,” according to its website.

1980: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) established and headquartered in Geneva

“The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research is a voluntarily funded autonomous institute within the United Nations. An impartial actor, the Institute generates ideas and promotes action on disarmament and security,” states the website. The agency campaigns against weapons of mass destruction and publishes key findings, as well as holding a series of annual conferences.

1991: United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) headquartered in Geneva

This UN agency, headquartered in Villa la Pelouse in Geneva, was created in 1991 to process claims and pay compensation for losses and damage suffered as a direct result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91…To date, the Commission had paid out about $47.9 billion in compensation awards to successful claimants,” says the agency's website.

1991: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

This is the UN agency that coordinates emergency relief worldwide, or in the agency's own words, “OCHA is the part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.”

1993: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

OHCHR is the main UN body coordinating work to document human rights abuses and protect human rights worldwide. OHCHR leads global human rights efforts and provides “a forum for identifying, highlighting and developing responses to today's human rights challenges, and act as the principal focal point of human rights research, education, public information, and advocacy activities in the United Nations system,” according to the organization's website.

The headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) named Palais Wilson, honouring the former United States president Woodrow Wilson, are seen in January 2018 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini. 

1996: UNAIDS established in Geneva

This agency coordinates the global struggle against AIDS. Since the disease was first identified 35 years ago, 35 million people have died from aids-related illnesses. More than 35 million people still live with the illness, with 21 million now on anti-viral drugs. “UNAIDS is leading the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals,” states the organization's website.The agency has a budget of 240 million in 2018 and offices in 70 countries. 

1999: United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), established and headquartered in Geneva

Created in 1999 to  “to serve as the focal point in the United Nations system for the coordination of disaster reduction and to ensure synergies among the disaster reduction activities of the United Nations system and regional organizations and activities in socio‐economic and humanitarian fields,” according to its website.

Global diplomacy in Geneva

There have been so many high stake meetings in Geneva that to list them all would leave your fingers hurting after all the scrolling. The Palace of Nations hosts thousands of meetings each year. 

From 1930s European dialogues to prevent war to talks to end wars in Indochina that created the Vietnam partition, and more recently dialogue on Iraq, Syria and so many other conflicts, Geneva maintains its platform as a global policy host and incubator. 

Here are some snaps of a few iconic moments. 

Busy discussions: Picture taken on April 1935 of former French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval attending the League of Nations assembly, in Geneva. The League of Nations collapses a few years later as World War II broke out. Photo: AFP.

This picture, taken on 27th April 1954 in the Palace of Nations in Geneva, shows a Chinese delegation, lead by Chou En Lai (L, behind placard PROC) and USSR delegation lead by Molotov (C, 4th row) during Peace Conference to obtain a ceasefire in Viêt-nam and partition the country. STAFF / AFP.

French president Pierre Mendès (right) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Molotov (left) during discussions in Geneva to end the war in what was then known as Indochina. Photo: Staff/AFP. 

Undated photo taken in Genova showing Swedish Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold (L). Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 10 April 1953 until 18 September 1961 when he met his death in a plane accident while on a peace mission in Congo. AFP PHOTO

Chief of Soviet delegation Viatcheslav Molotov (C) and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (R) leave the Palace of Nations in Geneva on April 28th, 1954 during the Geneva Conference. The 1954 Geneva Conference was designed to settle disputes that arose from the end of the Korea War and the so-called First Indochina War in southeast Asia. Photo: ATP/AFP. 

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The former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat (L) meets with former United Nations General Secretary Javier Perez de Cuellar, December 14th 1988, in Geneva, in second day of meeting on Palestine question at UN European headquarters in Palace of Nations. Photo: Derrick Ceyrac/AFP.

People stand silent during a commemoration ceremony for victims of the UN headquarters suicide bomb blast in August 2003 at the Nations Palace in Geneva. Philippe Desmazes/AFP. 

A general view shows the executive board room during the opening of a global bird flu conference at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva 07 November 2005. Four hundred experts and decision-makers gathered on November 7th 2005 for a three-day council meeting on bird flu called by the world's paramount agencies for human and animal health. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

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General view during the opening day of the 61st World Health Organisation (WHO) assembly on May 19th, 2008 in Geneva. Food security, climate change and pandemic flu were three global crises looming in the horizon which could undo progress in public health at the time, the World Health Organisation's director general said. Chan was addressing delegates from 193 member states attending the WHO's annual general assembly which runs from May 19-24 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / Fabrice Coffrini

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The original document of the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field,” signed on 1864, is seen on August 10th, 2009 at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva in 2009. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaber Ansari, Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Turkish Foreign Ministry Deputy Sedat Onal, and UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend a meeting on creating a committee to help draft a new constitution for Syria, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on September 11, 2018. Representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran, are meeting with the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria to discuss the situation in the war-torn nation. Photo: Salvatore Di Nolfi/ POOL/AFP.

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