Advocates of a ban on killer robots can learn from the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
On July 7 2017, 122 states adopted a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons at the United Nations in New York. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons bans the development, possession, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons while also requiring states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing as well as to remediate affected environments.
This treaty came about after years of work by states and civil society. In the face of disarmament efforts that had been stalled for decades, civil society and like-minded states reframed nuclear disarmament from an arms control question to a humanitarian issue. The humanitarian framing was a key driver in the Humanitarian Initiative that led to the negotiations just as it had been for the processes prohibiting anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.
Just as advocates for nuclear disarmament were able to learn from previous campaigns to ban landmines and cluster munitions, future disarmament campaigns can learn many lessons from this process leading up to the Treaty’s adoption. In particular, it can provide a number of important lessons for civil society and states working towards a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems.
First, the nuclear ban process demonstrated that it is much easier to prohibit weapons before they are used. It took 71 years, 11 months and 1 day to adopt a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons after their first use in Hiroshima, Japan. In that time, nine other states developed nuclear weapons (South Africa later dismantled its program), nuclear weapons were tested over 1,000 times and the global nuclear arsenal ballooned to over 60,000 before dropping to the current total of approximately 15,000. We also cannot forget that the first United Nations resolution ever agreed to, back in 1946, was in support of nuclear disarmament. Over the past seven decades, countless hours and dollars have been spent trying to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.
When it comes to autonomous weapons, a similar time frame could result in countless casualties and unimaginable humanitarian harm. Looking back now on what it has taken to get to this place regarding nuclear weapons and how much further there is go, the only logical conclusion is that we should have prohibited nuclear weapons in 1945 – it would have saved many lives and significant amounts of money.
Second, conversations about the humanitarian impact, the legality and morality of weapons are useful even when others want to talk about “hard security” because they open space both for conversations and for other actors. Nuclear disarmament has often been characterized as the ultimate hard security topic – one that has be talked about in “serious” state security and arms control terms. However, the process that led to the nuclear ban treaty framed the conversation around the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
By placing human security at the centre of these discussions, the humanitarian initiative created new space to consider the prohibition of nuclear weapons. All states had a stake in the negotiations because of the trans-border nature of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Whether they were part of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or neighbor to a nuclear armed state, all states who participated saw that nuclear weapons were a threat to their citizens. Prioritizing the security of citizens changed the conversation and a similar shift could be expected within the discussion of autonomous weapons systems.
The morality of nuclear weapons also figured heavily in the Humanitarian Initiative. Faith groups especially highlighted the morally unacceptable basis of nuclear deterrence. The moral and ethical issues surrounding autonomous weapons systems have been a topic of conversation at the national and international level from the start and this should continue. As humanity we cannot overlook questions about the morality and ethics of weapons. It is often the moral and ethical arguments that motivate states to disavow weapons that may have some perceived military utility.
Third, being rational and realistic is not exclusive to those focusing on traditional state security. Disarmament advocates and states supporting the nuclear ban treaty had realistic and security focused reasons for pursuing nuclear disarmament and the treaty, however, they were dismissed as being driven by emotions and values not rational thought. People who claim to be “rational” or “realistic” because they are talking about state security are just as emotionally and values driven as those taking a humanitarian approach. Critics of civil society and of the ban treaty process often accused them of being emotionally driven while those supporting the status quo were considered “rational” and “realistic”. Beyond the gendered narrative constructed by these assertions, the important thing to remember is that even those who are focusing on hard or state security are motivated by values. The values may be different, but that does not preclude that they are emotionally driven.
Fourth, treaties that construct norms can have an impact. The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons has been called a constructivist treaty because it seeks to further construct the international norm against nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapon states’ reaction to the treaty shows that such constructivist treaties can have an impact. Treaties are only legally binding on the states which the join them, however, it is evident that the normative or constructivist aspects of the treaty will have a wide-ranging impact. Based on the reactions to the nuclear ban treaty by the nuclear weapons states especially the United Kingdom, France and the United States, they expect that the norms set by the Treaty will have an impact on global perception of nuclear weapons and their self-perceived status as legitimate possessors of nuclear weapons.
Fifth, diplomats and governments should listen to scientists. After the development of the first nuclear weapons, scientists from a variety of disciplines appealed to world leaders to “remember your humanity, and forget the rest” and end the threat of use of nuclear weapons. That appeal went unheard and decades later, over 3,000 scientists signed an open letter in support of the 2017 negotiations. The scientists should have been listened to in the 1940s. Now, we see thousands of AI experts, roboticists, computer scientists and others speaking out and calling for a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems. Many of these experts do not want to see their work corrupted into harming people. Their concerns are serious and should be treated as such.
Sixth, colonial views still permeate international affairs. For decades the only opinions that seemed to matter about nuclear weapons were those of the five nuclear weapon states (the US, the UK, France, Russia and China) and occasionally their allies. The security concerns of the nuclear armed states were paramount over any concerns by the vast majority of the planet. Even after the Humanitarian Initiative began to level the playing field or as Costa Rica put it, “democracy has come to nuclear disarmament”, the nuclear armed states still continued to question the validity of other states’ concerns. During informal comments in the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee in 2016, the United Kingdom’s ambassador stated that the states pressing for a nuclear ban treaty did not have security concerns unlike the states who opposed the negotiations which did. It goes without saying that all states have security concerns.
These colonialist hangovers also had an impact on who were considered acceptable guardians of weapons capable of destroying humanity. Built into the conversations about nuclear weapons is the idea that they are bad for most states to have, but that a select few states can have them without it being a problem. However, as the Humanitarian Initiative has shown there are no safe or responsible hands for nuclear weapons. The risk of another nuclear detonation, intentional or not, is far too high.
Colonialist views can be seen in the assumption that only “we” will have autonomous weapon systems and the reasons “we” might need them are more valid than reasons for opposing them. In the nuclear ban context, these views were overcome by a humanitarian approach and by meetings which were open to all states and blockable by none. Unlike a number of other United Nations bodies that deal with nuclear disarmament, the 2016 Open Ended Working Group and the 2017 negotiating conference were open to all states as well as international organizations and civil society. These meetings originated in the United Nations General Assembly which provided rules of procedure predicated on equality between all participating states. International efforts to pre-emptively prohibit autonomous weapons systems should aim for similar levels of openness and inclusivity to ensure that all states have a voice on this issue that will affect us all.
These lessons from the nuclear ban treaty process reinforce lessons from the Ottawa Treaty and from the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Lessons from the Ottawa Treaty showed that the international community should not wait until there is a humanitarian crisis with huge stockpiles and thousands of casualties and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons puts that lesson in to practice. Other lessons from the Ottawa Treaty such as action is possible even when large states are not participating and the importance of including survivors in the process were applied successfully in the nuclear ban process. Learning from and building on previous humanitarian disarmament processes will make future efforts much more likely to succeed.
The Humanitarian Initiative and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons have provided a number of lessons for campaigners and states seeking to pre-emptively prohibit autonomous weapons systems. More importantly perhaps this process has shown it is possible to create new international law even when some states are strongly opposed to the idea. The power of civil society and like-minded states to create change should not be underestimated.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is deeply disappointed that the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) has cancelled a crucial week of formal discussions on fully autonomous weapons in August. This step was taken because of the failure of several states, most notably Brazil, to pay their assessed dues for the convention’s meetings.
“The collective failure of countries to find a solution to their financial woes doesn’t mean they can stop addressing concerns over weapons that would select and attack targets without further human intervention” said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “If the CCW is unable to act, nations must find other ways to maintain the momentum toward a ban,” she said. “Countries that agree with the need to retain human control of weapons systems should move swiftly to adopt national policies and laws and to negotiate a new international treaty prohibiting fully autonomous weapons.”
The call for a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons has been endorsed by 19 countries and dozens more states have affirmed the need to retain human control over the selection of targets and use of force. This clearly indicates that they see a need to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons. Last December, China became the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to find that new international law is required to regulate fully autonomous weapons.
The Campaign calls on Canada and all countries to urgently address the enormous humanitarian challenges posed by these weapons by endorsing the call for a ban. It is vital and urgent that all stakeholders work together to secure a new international treaty before these weapons are unleashed.
“Canada has a long history of taking action when the CCW is unable to move forward,” said Paul Hannon, Executive Director of Mines Action Canada, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “We are calling on Canada to act now to ensure that there is always meaningful human control over weapons. The international community cannot let the work done thus far go to waste.”
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots fundamentally objects to permitting machines to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control, and other circumstances. It calls for a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons through new international law as well as through domestic legislation.
Following the launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and a debate in the Human Rights Council, countries agreed in November 2013 to begin discussing what they called lethal autonomous weapons systems at the Convention on Conventional Weapons at the United Nations in Geneva. The CCW is a framework treaty that prohibits or restricts certain weapons and its 1995 protocol on blinding lasers is an example of a weapon being preemptively banned before it was acquired or used.
Most of the CCW’s 124 high contracting parties participated in three meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems in 2014-2016, in addition to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Last December at their Fifth Review Conference CCW states decided to formalize and expand those deliberations by establishing a Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems to meet in August and November 2017, chaired by Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India.
However, on 30 May, the CCW’s president-designate Ambassador Matthew Rowland of the UK announced that the Group of Governmental Experts meeting scheduled for 21-25 August has been cancelled due to a lack of funds. Previously Rowland issued several warnings that that the lack of payment of assessed financial contributions would mean the likely cancellation of CCW meetings planned for 2017.
Several countries have financial arrears from previous years, but according to the UN’s official summary, Brazil accounts for 86 percent of the outstanding contributions due to four core humanitarian disarmament treaties, including the CCW. Brazil last paid its assessed CCW contributions in 2010. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has appealed to Brazil to pay its outstanding contributions without delay and it challenges CCW states to achieve cost saving measures in other ways that do not require the cancellation of key meetings.
Several autonomous weapons systems with various degrees of human control are currently in use by high-tech militaries including CCW states the US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the UK. The concern is that low-cost sensors and advances in artificial intelligence are making it increasingly practical to design weapons systems that would target and attack without any meaningful human control. If the trend towards autonomy continues, humans will start to fade out of the decision-making loop, first retaining only a limited oversight role, and then no role at all.
Canada, France, UK, and the US supported establishing the CCW Group of Governmental Experts last December, but remain unambitious in their overall goals for the process by proposing a focus on sharing best practices and achieving greater transparency in the conduct of legal reviews of new weapons systems. Russia openly opposed the creation of a Group of Governmental Experts, but did not block multilateral consensus for establishing one.
New poll indicates that 55% of Canadians oppose autonomous weapons systems
This week, Ipsos released results from the first global public opinion survey that included a question on autonomous weapons. Autonomous weapons, sometimes called killer robots, are future weapons that could select and fire upon a target without human control. Ipsos found that 55% of Canadians surveyed opposed autonomous weapons while another 25% were uncertain about the technology.
In the survey 11,500 citizens across 25 countries were asked “The United Nations is reviewing the strategic, legal and moral implications of autonomous weapons systems. These systems are capable of independently selecting targets and attacking those targets without human intervention; they are thus different than current day ”drones” where humans select and attack targets. How do you feel about the use of autonomous weapons in war?” In all but five countries (France, India, the US, China and Poland), a clear majority are opposed to the use of autonomous weapons in war.
Among Canadians, 21% of respondents reported being somewhat opposed to autonomous weapons in war while 34% were strongly opposed to the technology being used in war. Only 5% of Canadians surveyed were strongly supportive of using autonomous weapons in war. This survey is the first to poll Canadians on autonomous weapons systems.
“As part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, we have frequently heard from Canadians that they want to ensure that there is meaningful human control over weapons at all times. This survey confirms that those opinions represent the majority of Canadians,” said Paul Hannon, Executive Director of Mines Action Canada, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, “In addition to strong citizen opposition to the use of autonomous weapons in war, Canada also has the first robotics company in the world to vow to never build autonomous weapons, Clearpath Robotics. It is time for the Canadian government to catch up to the citizens and come up with a national policy on autonomous weapons.”
Mines Action Canada is calling on the Government of Canada to ensure meaningful public and Parliamentary involvement in drafting Canada’s national position on autonomous weapons systems prior to the United Nations talks on the subject later this year.
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Media Contact: Erin Hunt, Program Coordinator, Mines Action Canada, + 1 613 241-3777 (office), + 1 613 302-3088 (mobile) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Argentina, Belgium, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, Hungary, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, Peru and the United States of America.
Originally published on the Forum on the Arms Trade’s Looking Ahead blog, Erin Hunt looks at opportunities and challenges ahead in 2017 for efforts to preemptively ban autonomous weapons systems.
2017 has the potential to be a pivotal year in efforts to ensure that all weapons have meaningful human control. For three years, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) has been discussing lethal autonomous weapons (future weapons that could select and fire upon a target without human control). In December 2016, the Review Conference of the CCW decided to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) chaired by Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India which will meet over 10 days in 2017 and then report-back to the CCW’s annual meeting on 22-24 November.
A GGE is a more formal level of meetings than the ones held in 2014, 2015 and 2016. States will be expected to bring their own experts and participate actively in discussions, instead of listening to presentations by outside experts and asking questions of those experts. The first meeting of the GGE will be held at the UN in Geneva on either 24-28 April or 21-25 August 2017. The date is dependent on when funds are available for the meeting. The second meeting of the GGE will be on 13-17 November, just before the annual CCW meeting.
In 2016, the number of states calling for a pre-emptive ban on fully autonomous weapons more than doubled. At the time of writing, Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, Holy See, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, State of Palestine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe have called for a ban while a number of other states seem to support new international humanitarian law of some sort to deal with autonomous weapons systems.
This GGE is a large step towards a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems but there are a number of challenges ahead in 2017. First, the Russian Federation continues to object to more formal talks on autonomous weapon systems on the grounds that it is premature to move forward since there is not a clear understanding of the subject under discussion. That objection forgets that definitions are usually the last part of disarmament treaties to be negotiated. It was only at the very end of the 2016 CCW Review Conference that Russia agreed to not block the GGE.
Second, the majority of states, including my own, Canada, do not have national policies on autonomous weapons systems. However, this challenge is also an opportunity. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will be working hard around the world in 2017 to support the development of national policies on autonomous weapons systems. After three years of informal CCW experts meetings as well as discussions in the Human Rights Council, states have a large amount of information at their disposal to begin to craft national policies. States can also hold consultations on creating a national policy in advance of the GGE meetings.
Third, there is the possibility that the GGE may become distracted by the inclusion of a discussion item on best practices and greater transparency in Article 36 weapons reviews. These legal reviews are an obligation of states developing, purchasing or otherwise acquiring new weapons.
Although Article 36 weapons reviews should be a topic of discussion at the international level to strengthen both policy and practice around the world, better weapons reviews will not solve the problems associated with autonomous weapons systems and should not distract the GGE from the core of its work. Weapons reviews cannot answer moral, ethical, and political questions. An Article 36 review cannot tell us if it is acceptable to the public conscience for a machine to kill without meaningful human control. Autonomous weapons systems are often referred to as a revolution in warfare; and as such, moral, ethical and political considerations must not be pushed aside. These questions need to remain on the international agenda in 2017.
This year, we will witness significant work done at the national and international level to increase understanding of the challenges posed by autonomous weapons as well as the number of states calling for a pre-emptive ban. Stay tuned to see if the international community stands ready at year’s end to ensure that all weapons have meaningful human control.
The 5th Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) wrapped up today in Geneva and we’re very pleased that states agreed to hold two weeks of formal meetings in 2017 to discuss autonomous weapons. This Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) is the next step towards new international law about autonomous weapons. The international Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has a comment on the GGE decision online.
It’s been a busy week at CCW, Mines Action Canada delivered a statement in the General Debate and then we worked with our campaign colleagues to shore up support for the GGE.
So you didn’t miss out on any of the week’s events, we’ve created daily recaps in both Storify and video format. This week marks the start of a whole new phase of our efforts to ban killer robots. Donate today to support our work.
Thank you Chair. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on behalf of Mines Action Canada.
Although today we are starting the 5th Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, we must spend our time looking forward. We are entrusted with preventing humanitarian harm from existing weapons like incendiary weapons and from future weapons that will require new legal instruments to avoid catastrophes to come.
CCW has spent three years holding informal meetings about autonomous weapons systems. At times during those discussions, we have felt that some have underestimated the skills, knowledge, intelligence, training, experience, humanity and morality that women and men in uniform combine with situational awareness and IHL to make decisions during conflict. We work closely with roboticists, and engineers, but despite their expertise and the high quality of their work, we do not believe an algorithm could replicate this complex and very human decision making process. Robotics should only be used to inform and supplement human decision making.
In the CCW’s work on autonomous weapons systems, we have learned more about Article 36 reviews but it is clear that states need to be more transparent, systemic and rigorous in their weapons review processes. Mines Action Canada believes that Article 36 weapons reviews should be a topic of discussion at the international level to strengthen both policy and practice around the world.
However, better weapons reviews will not solve the problems associated with autonomous weapons systems. For example, Article 36 reviews are not obligated to cover weapons used for domestic purposes outside of armed conflict such as policing, border control, or crowd control. Most importantly, weapons reviews cannot answer moral, ethical, technical and political questions. An Article 36 review cannot tell us if it is acceptable to the public conscience for a machine to kill without meaningful human control.
It is time for a separate effort to strengthen the standards and transparency around weapons reviews. That effort must neither distract from nor overtake our work here to deal with the real moral, legal, ethical and security problems associated with autonomous weapons systems. Weapons reviews must be grounded in new and robust international law that clearly and deliberately puts meaningful human control at the centre of all weapons development.
The concerns raised by autonomous weapons are urgent and must take priority. If we wait until everyone has a clear understanding of every aspect of the issue to start a Group of Governmental Experts the window of opportunity to prevent humanitarian harm from autonomous weapons will close. A GGE will allow high contracting parties to develop their understanding of the issue and to pursue effective outcomes.
In Canada, particularly, this year’s defence review offered an opportunity for the government to hear from a number of experts on autonomous weapons systems. A GGE next year would give Canada the opportunity to share the results of that process and to contribute our collective understanding of the issue.
Mines Action Canada, as a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, believes that the way forward must lead to a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems as a tool to prevent humanitarian harm without damaging research and development on autonomy and robotics for military or civilian purposes. Earlier this year, a Canadian robotics expert made it clear there are no other applications for an autonomous system which can make a “kill or not kill” decision. The function providing an autonomous weapon the ability to make the “kill decision” does not have an equivalent civilian use therefore, pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems would have no impact on the funding of research and development for artificial intelligence.
As experts at the meeting in April made clear our window of opportunity to prevent future humanitarian harm from autonomous weapons will not stay open long so we need to be moving forward at this Review Conference. Therefore, we urge states to accept the recommendation for an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts next year.
The Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Review Conference in December will decide if they will hold a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on autonomous weapons systems in 2017. A GGE is the logical next step in the work to address concerns about autonomous weapons systems (or killer robots).
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is getting ready for the Review Conference here in Canada and around the world. Check out our colleagues at Reaching Critical Will for an update on the Preparatory Meeting of the CCW to see how the international preparations are going.
On the Canadian side, our Program Coordinator, Erin Hunt, was pleased to deliver the Campaign’s statement to the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee on October 12.
Over the next month and a bit, we will be talking with parliamentarians, civil society and academics to help ensure that Canada takes a strong position at the Review Conference and beyond. You can help by writing your MP to ask that Canada outline a national policy on autonomous weapons or by donating online to support our work.
This summer, our Executive Director, Paul Hannon, spoke with Bloomberg TV about autonomous weapons systems. You can see the whole interview here.
For the third year the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) met in Geneva to work on autonomous weapon systems. From April 11th to 15th 2016, the informal experts meeting held at the United Nations addressed a wide range of issues and concerns. The meeting was attended by 94 member and observer States to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons. This marked the highest turnout yet reflecting the increasing awareness and growing concern about these future weapons.
The CCW is a framework treaty that prohibits or restricts certain conventional weapons deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. The meeting included members of UN agencies, including the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, with a diverse and passionate group of 40 campaigners from 10 countries, was active and provided very substantive input and expert analysis into discussions on issues such as meaningful human control and the weaknesses of Article 36 weapon reviews among other topics.
As a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada (MAC) supports a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems before they are ever developed or used. MAC was well represented at the meetings and gave statements about the repercussions of allowing such weapons to be developed. Executive Director Paul Hannon’s statement talked about the need to implement a ban on these systems before a humanitarian catastrophe occurs as well as the growing support for a pre-emptive ban. Project Coordinator Erin Hunt’s statement detailed the limitations of weapon reviews for lethal autonomous weapons systems and the importance of prioritizing a ban on these systems. Project Ploughshares, a new Canadian member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, also participated actively.
Encouragingly, five nations Algeria, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems bringing the total to 14 states that now support this goal. Throughout the meeting, Cuba, Ecuador, the Holy See and Pakistan as well as all NGO speakers reiterated the need for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems.
Although many nations, including Canada, were not willing at this time to support a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems, the importance of meaningful human control was underlined many times during the 5-day meeting. The Netherlands announced new policy in support of meaningful human control over deployed weapon systems. As well, Austria made note of the recommendation by two UN Special Rapporteurs in their February 2016 report to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons systems that require no meaningful human control. The report can be found here with reference to lethal autonomous weapons systems on page 17.
The common area of concern regarding lethal autonomous weapons systems is the lack of ability to properly target and apply force in a strike. Without human control over key points of identification of targets and approval of a strike, innocent civilians could be inappropriately targeted and killed. It is important to maintain meaningful human control over critical functions of lethal autonomous weapons systems to ensure proper application of international humanitarian law as well as accountability were a target later to be understood as inappropriate. These qualifiers cannot be guaranteed with lethal autonomous weapons and thus threaten international security and stability.
The proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons systems risks the development of an arms race and a weakening of global security. Prohibitions and tight restrictions have helped to calm arms races and promote international peace. As well, lethal autonomous weapons systems threaten the protection of civilians in conflict zones. Autonomous robotic systems are most successful in predictable and reliable environments. However, autonomous weapons systems would be in highly unpredictable conflict zones and thus risk performing unreliably and endangering civilians.
NGOs remain concerned over the lack of concrete action taken on this issue. Strong and substantive statements were made by Mines Action Canada, Nobel Women’s Initiative, Human Rights Watch and others at CCW in April, urging states to establish an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts (GGE). A GGE would see in-depth study into the issues surrounding lethal autonomous weapons and submitting their findings to the UN. A GGE would be the first step in understanding issues of how lethal autonomous weapons systems would comply with international humanitarian law, the effects on regional or global security, create instability and the risk of an arms race. In addition, the GGE would give the CCW time to explore the blurred nature between soldier and weapon that fully autonomous weapon systems present. A short video compiled by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots at the meeting in April can be seen here and daily updates can be found online for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The meeting ended with some recommendations for the future and states ‘may decide to establish’ a GGE at the 2016 Fifth Review Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibition or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons in December. In addition, the recommendations state that the GGE should work to identify characteristics of lethal autonomous weapons systems and create a working definition.
Although most interventions supported the formation of a GGE as the next step in this process, the final decision will not be made until the Review Conference in December. While Mines Action Canada is cautiously optimistic that a Group of Governmental Experts will be formalized at the meeting this December, we remain concerned that the pace of these discussions is not keeping up to the speed of technological change. Of course, the specific mandate of the GGE will be all important.
Much work remains over the coming months.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots released their report on the activities undertaken at the 3rd meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons and can be found here.
A student post by our summer student Miranda Barclay.
Today Mines Action Canada Program Coordinator made an intervention during CCW discussions about autonomous weapons systems and weapons review processes.
Thank you Madame Chair. I would like to take this opportunity to share Mines Action Canada’s observations about Article 36 reviews.
Like many others, Mines Action Canada was concerned to learn that there was so little transparency around Article 36 weapons reviews at last year’s experts meeting. The fact that so few states were willing to discuss their weapons review process is a significant impediment to the prevention of humanitarian harm caused by new weapons. Indeed it seems that too few states actually undertake these reviews in a comprehensive manner.
Last year’s revelations concerning Article 36 reviews have made it clear that international discussions on the topic are necessary. Today is a start. States need to be more transparent in their weapons review processes. Sharing criteria and standards or setting international standards will do much to shed light on the shadowy world of arms procurement. Mines Action Canada believes that Article 36 weapons reviews should be a topic of discussion at the international level to strengthen both policy and practice around the world.
However, better weapons reviews will not solve the problems associated with autonomous weapons systems for a number of reasons.
First, there is the issue of timing. A successful international process to increase the effectiveness of weapons reviews will require a significant amount of time – time we do not have in the effort to prevent the use of autonomous weapons systems because technology is developing too rapidly.
Second, weapons reviews were designed for a very different type of weapon than autonomous weapon systems which have been called the third revolution in warfare. Autonomous weapons systems will blur the line between weapon and soldier to a level that may be beyond the ability of a weapons review process. In addition, the systemic complexity that will be required to operate such a weapons system is a far cry from the more linear processes found in current weapons.
Third, Article 36 reviews are not obligated to cover weapons used for domestic purposes outside of armed conflict such as policing, border control, or crowd control. Mines Action Canada, along with many civil society organizations and states present here, have serious concerns about the possible use of autonomous weapons systems in law enforcement and uses outside of armed conflict more generally.
Fourth and most importantly, weapons reviews cannot answer the moral questions surrounding delegating the kill decision to a machine. An Article 36 review cannot tell us if it is acceptable for an algorithm to kill without meaningful human control. And that is one of the key questions we are grappling with here this week.
Article 36 weapons reviews are a legal obligation for most of the states here. It is time for a separate effort to strengthen the standards and transparency around weapons reviews. That effort must neither distract from nor overtake our work here to deal with the real moral, legal, ethical and security problems associated with autonomous weapons systems. Weapons reviews must be supplemented by new and robust international law that clearly and deliberately puts meaningful human control at the centre of all new weapons development.
The concerns raised by autonomous weapons are urgent and must take priority. In fact, a GGE next year on autonomous weapons will greatly assist future work on weapons reviews by highlighting the many challenges new technologies pose for such reviews.
Overall, there is a need for international work to improve Article 36 reviews but there is little evidence to back up the claims of some states that weapons review processes would be sufficient to ensure that autonomous weapons systems are acceptable. Article 36 reviews are only useful once questions of the moral and ethical acceptability of a weapon have been dealt with. Until that time, it would be premature to view weapons review as a panacea to our issues here at CCW.