Model United Nations Urges Ban on Killer Robots

Posted on 06 April 2015 by mbolton

UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon “energized” by students’ “serious discussions” on autonomous weapons systems

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses National Model UN conference in the General Assembly Room, 26 March 2015. Photo: NMUN.

In less than two weeks, diplomats from around the world will gather at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss potential global regulations on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” that would be able to select and attack targets without direct human control.

But last week, at the National Model UN conference in New York, attended by some 2,500 undergraduate students from all over the world, a simulation of the UN General Assembly passed three resolutions calling for states to take action to prevent the threat of these “killer robots” to security, human rights and humanitarian law.

Addressing the closing ceremony of the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told students he was “energized by this dynamic gathering” and its “serious discussions” on “cutting-edge issues on the international agenda”, such as “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

“You are not just leaders of the future – you can start to lead right now,” he told them, “now is the time for your generation to build human solidarity around the world.”

The NMUN NY resolutions defined lethal autonomous robots as “weapons that can select and attack targets independently – without meaningful human input or control”, suggested all countries immediate adopt a national moratorium on such weapons, and urged the negotiation of an international ban through an additional Protocol VI at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (NMUN NY 2015A/GA1-1-1).

Model UN is a simulation of diplomacy, negotiation and decisionmaking by international organizations. Students play the role of diplomats from Member States of the UN and discuss issues at the top of the global policymaking agenda. NMUN NY is one of the biggest undergraduate Model UN conferences in the world.

The students assigned to simulate the General Assembly First Committee – which deals with issues of disarmament and international security – spent several months learning about their countries’ policy positions, the General Assembly and the politics of killer robots. (See for example, their background guide). After debate and drafting in the First Committee, the resolutions were passed by students representing the full plenary body in the actual General Assembly Room at the UN in New York.

The resolutions also called attention to the “work and expertise” of civil society, particularly the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) (NMUN NY 2015A/GA1-1 -1, GA1-1-2 and GA1-1-3).

In a briefing, Dr. Matthew Bolton, Model UN advisor for Pace University New York City and member of ICRAC, told students at the conference that when new weapons technologies are not adequately addressed by existing regulations, the Marten’s Clause in international law requires states to be guided by “the principle of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.”

“Avoid the temptation to think this simulation is a meaningless game,” said Bolton, “A statement of strong concern from you could be considered an expression of public conscience – a challenge to policymakers in the real world to take action against killer robots.”


Matthew Bolton is associate professor of political science at Pace University in New York City. He is an expert on global peace and security policy, focusing on multilateral disarmament and arms control policymaking processes. He has a PhD in Government and Master's in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. Since 2014, Bolton has worked on the UN and New York City advocacy of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. Bolton has published five books, including Political Minefields (I.B. Tauris) and Imagining Disarmament, Enchanting International Relations (Palgrave Pivot).

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