By: Jonathan Frerichs
UN representative for disarmament, Geneva, Pax Christi International
26 November 2019
This is an up-date about the effort to prohibit autonomous weapons. The opposition to a ban brings to mind the same apartheid-style dynamics which allow a few states to have nuclear weapons. Now there are signs of a similar double standard emerging around killer robots. Pax Christi International is a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
The CCW, a Geneva-based convention designed to prohibit especially bad weapons, has been discussing lethal robotic weapons since 2013. Its findings mostly point to the urgent need to impose a pre-emptive ban on any weapon which would select and kill human beings on its own.
This year’s “debate” ended 14-16 November 2019 and the outcome was modest once again.
States parties to the CCW agreed to adopt a brief set of “guiding principles” developed over the last two years. These are rather broad, for example, international law shall apply to all future weapons systems and humans are responsible and accountable for the use of weapons which have autonomous capabilities. The CCW says it will aim to “operationalize” the principles in the next two years.
So little has been accomplished that news stories from previous CCW meetings could be recycled. “Yet again, a small group of military powers have shown an appalling lack of ambition and zero sense of urgency…on lethal autonomous weapons systems,” the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said earlier in 2019, and much the same in 2018 as well.
Which states are blocking constructive action? Russia, USA, Israel, United Kingdom and Australia, in the main. All either have or rely on nuclear weapons. They argue that existing international law is sufficient. Yet they and other nuclear-dependent states haven’t fulfilled their legal obligation under the NPT to eliminate nuclear weapons. They refuse to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which is largely based on International Humanitarian Law and reinforces the NPT.
Many of the other states in the CCW want new legal controls based on IHL. The guardian of the laws of war, the International Committee of the Red Cross, is calling for new rules to address the legal, ethical and humanitarian concerns raised by autonomous weapons
The blockers also give short shrift to calls for rigorous application of International Human Rights Law to autonomous weapon systems. Yet it was the UN Human Rights Council which first brought the issue of killer robots to the CCW out of concern for extra-judicial killings.
While a few powerful states dither and delay, technology is steadily advancing. Weapons with algorithms that select and strike targets on their own are not much “smarter” than the self-driving cars being tested today.
Fortunately, support for common-sense controls and preventive measures is building–at the CCW and far beyond. Recent examples:
- 30 countries plus the Non-Aligned Movement of 120 states are calling for a prohibition of fully autonomous weapons.
- Austria, Brazil and Chile are calling for a CCW mandate to negotiate “a legally-binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapons systems.
- In September 2018, the European Parliament called for negotiations of such a ban.
- Foreign ministers of Germany and Belgium have called for a ban.
- More than 60-percent of the public in 26 countries are opposed to the development of weapons that would select and attack targets on their own, according to a recent poll.
- 4,500 AI experts and 116 CEOs of robotics companies have called on the United Nations to take action on robotic weapons systems.
- More than 240 tech companies and 3,200 tech workers have pledged never to develop, produce or use autonomous weapons systems.
- The Synod of the Protestant Church in Germany called for a ban on killer robots while the CCW was meeting in November.
The core of this majoritarian concern is to respect the moral threshold that machines must not be allowed to kill people.
Nuclear weapons pose a grave risk which a large majority of states have addressed unequivocally. Killer robots impose a responsibility which many states are recognizing, which no state can escape and which all states must answer.