An opinion from the Vienna Autonomous Weapons Conference and a call for an international treaty with broad participation

Stop Killer Robots
3 min readMay 16, 2024

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by Hevelyn Ghizzi

Youth delegates pose with David Wreckham, the friendly robot campaigner, in Vienna, Austria | April 2024

“Humanity at the Crossroads” “The Oppenheimer moment” “Crucial moment of decision” “The future is now” were phrases commonly used throughout the Vienna Conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems.

This conference was a milestone in history because, in addition to being the largest meeting on the subject outside of the UN ever recorded, it brought together various experts to debate and expand the subject. Being a youth delegate, representing Dhesarme and Stop Killer Robots at this event, was an opportunity to grow and improve. This conference showed that the future is already happening and that the future is a reflection of current realities — the time to act on autonomous weapons is now.

The urgent appeal made by the UN Secretary-General in July 2023 for the adoption of an international treaty on autonomous weapons systems (AWS) shows that the concern has been discussed for a long time, albeit without results. The debate, which has been going on for more than 10 years, has had the dilemma of defining autonomous weapons, since it is challenging to regulate or limit something that is not fully defined. For this very reason, the Conference was relevant in showing that if there is a lack of information, it is necessary to imagine all possible scenarios of how the machine will act and what it will do in a war situation and situations of uncertainty. However, when the weapons and their effects become humanly impossible to control or predict, it is clear that regulation is necessary.

Throughout the debates, some comparisons were made, such as the lack of control of anti-personnel landmines, which, once they have been launched and are on the ground, there is no way of predicting or controlling who or what they are activated on.

In addition, one of the most important aspects of the different panels at the Conference, and also at the Side Events, was the fact that letting machines make the decisions over who lives or dies is undignified. It dehumanizes human beings even more than they already are in situations of violence. AWS are not value-neutral — these systems are embedded within capitalist, patriarchal and racist contexts and could carry the same prejudices as their creators, most of whom are from the Global North. It is well defined who will create these weapons and who will be the target of these creations. When we think of “targets” we often always think of people from the Global South. Equality, justice and security must be present in all debates and in the development spaces of a treaty. For this to be possible, everyone must be at the discussion table and making decisions.

The Oppenheimer moment has been mentioned a few times, because it was similar to a moment of indecision, but unlike that moment, today we have the power to decide! Today it’s not just the Global North that sits around the table, today we must address this urgent issue together.

Autonomous weapons systems fall outside of the bounds of our existing rules — they are dangerous systems that would further dehumanize human beings in situations of violence. So how is it possible for us to live in a world where the development of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems is speeding ahead, already impacting the lives of humans, and do nothing to stop it? It’s like watching our own destruction in slow motion.

As a youth delegate, I realize the importance of the voice of my generation and future generations in the face of a problem that can be addressed today, so as not to harm us in the future. But as a young person, I need previous generations, who are in decision-making positions, to choose a more humane world. That’s why I’m calling on all states, in addition to sending their contributions to the Secretary-General, to take part in the negotiations and creation of a new treaty. We are not talking about something new, we are talking about the relationship between humans, machines and war. We need to implement regulations and make sure that meaningful human control exists.

We are stronger together and this conference was essential to show that strength. Even though we are at a crossroads, we know the best way forward. Let’s regulate the future now!

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Stop Killer Robots

With growing digital dehumanisation, the Stop Killer Robots campaign works to ensure human control in the use of force. www.stopkillerrobots.org