22nd Mar 2018

Killer robots debate shortened by unpaid bills

  • Drones can be designed to become killer robots, but a UN discussion on international consequences has been cut short because of a lack of cash (Photo: Skye Studios)

A United Nations working group has scheduled a meeting for November to discuss lethal autonomous weapons, after enough countries, including Spain and Greece, had paid their bills.

Their first meeting, scheduled for August, had been cancelled because the cash to finance the meeting rooms and translators was lacking.

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  • Some of the late payments are small when compared to national budgets (Photo: Ken Teegardin)

However, almost 50 countries still have not paid their contributions - either from this year, previous years, or both - casting doubts over whether future discussions can go ahead.

Last month, a group of more than 100 technology CEOs signed an open letter calling on the UN to prevent an arms race with lethal autonomous weapon systems - colloquially referred to as "killer robots".

The CEOs wrote that they regretted the August meeting - which was supposed to be the inaugural meeting - had been cancelled. They called on the working group, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), to "double their efforts" at the first meeting in November.

But the five-day August meeting has been cancelled, not postponed. This means that the UN experts will spend only five days instead of ten days this year on the issue.

The subject is pressing, however, since killer robot technology is advancing quickly.

"There is surprisingly little debate about some of the consequences," Soren Transberg Hansen, one of the open letter's signatories, told EUobserver last month.

In 2014, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution which called on EU member states to "ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons, which enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention".

But the most recent Council of the EU conclusions on the subject, from December 2016, showed such a ban is still far away.

The text, agreed on by member states, said only that the Council "appreciates the important work" done by the UN group, and noted that it hoped the GGE would begin work in 2017.

Extracurricular budget

The GGE is part of the UN's Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

CCW meetings are extracurricular, and not funded from the central UN budget.

Since then, $55,308 (around €46,000) worth of payments came in - half of them from Spain and Greece. Last week, it was decided it was enough to fund the November session.

However, as of 31 August 2017, the CCW still had $336,322.37 (around €280,000) in outstanding payments, which are determined based on a country's GDP.

The bulk of that, 70 percent, is caused by subsequent unpaid bills from Brazil. Nevertheless, several European nations are also to blame.

Russia owes the CCW its 2017 contribution of $35,956.35 (around €30,000), while Ukraine has accumulated unpaid bills since 2009 - amounting to $10,467.37 (around €8,700).

According to the press office of Ukraine's foreign affairs ministry, the back payment has a "purely technical legislation background".

"As of now, Ukraine is preparing amendments to the ... legislation in the sphere of international financial obligations of our state. We expect this issue to be settled soon," it said in an e-mailed statement.

Finland owes the UN €12.50

Some of the late payments are small when compared to national budgets.

EU members with outstanding payments in relation to CCW are Finland ($15, or €12.50), Luxembourg ($617.05, or €516), Poland ($8,485.32, or €7,000), and Portugal ($2,952.97 or almost €2,500).

Mikko Autti, of the arms control unit at Finland's foreign ministry, explained that the unpaid contribution was "due to a human error".

"In fact, Finland has intended to pay its net contributions to the UN in a timely manner and in full and the minor payment gap is actually bank transfer fees, which also should have been paid by Finland," Autti wrote in an e-mail, noting the matter will be corrected.

The other countries did not reply to a request for comment.

The same problem exists for another UN groups on disarmament, the Anti Personnel Landmine Convention, which is missing around €40,000.

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