Campaign to Stop Killer Robots takes significant step forward at UN

Posted on 15 November 2013 by mbolton

ICRAC welcomes the historic decision taken by nations to begin international discussions on how to address the challenges posed by fully autonomous weapons. The agreement marks the beginning of a process that the campaign believes should lead to an international ban on these weapons to ensure there will always be meaningful human control over targeting decisions and the use of violent force.

At 16:48 on Friday, 15 November 2013, at the United Nations in Geneva, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons adopted a report containing a decision to convene on May 13-16, 2014 for their first meeting to discuss questions related to “lethal autonomous weapons systems” also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” These weapons are at the beginning of their development, but technology is moving rapidly toward increasing autonomy.

“This is a very significant step forward for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC ),” said Professor Noel Sharkey, Chairman of ICRAC. “We are now on the first rung of the international ladder to fulfill our goal of stopping these morally obnoxious weapons from ever being deployed.”

ICRAC was formed in 2009 to initiate international discussion on autonomous weapons systems. It is made up of experts in robotic technology, artificial intelligence, computer science, international security and arms control, ethics and international law. It is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes that robotic weapons systems should not be making life and death decisions on the battlefield. That would be inherently wrong, morally and ethically. Fully autonomous weapons are likely to run afoul of international humanitarian law, and that there are serious technical, proliferation, societal, and other concerns that make a preemptive ban necessary.

“Law follows technology.  With robotic weapons, we have an rare opportunity to regulate a category of dangerous weapons before they are fully realized and the CCW is our best opportunity for regulation,” said Dave Akerson an ICRAC legal expert.

A total of 117 states are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, including nations known to be advanced in developing autonomous weapons systems: United States, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, and United Kingdom. Adopted in 1980, this framework convention contains five protocols, including Protocol I prohibiting non-detectable fragments, Protocol III prohibiting the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, and Protocol IV, which preemptively banned blinding lasers.

“This is a momentous opportunity to get states on the record and behind a ban on fully autonomous offensive weapons,” said Heather Roff, an ICRAC philosopher. “If we can gain enough support, we might succeed in banning a technology before it actually harms innocent civilians.”

The agreement to begin work in the Convention on Conventional Weapons could lead to a future CCW Protocol VI prohibiting fully autonomous weapons.

ICRAC with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots supports any action to urgently address fully autonomous weapons in any forum. The decision to begin work in the Convention on Conventional Weapons does not prevent work elsewhere, such as the Human Rights Council.

Since the topic was first discussed at the Human Rights Council on 30 May 2013, a total of 44 nations have spoken publicly on fully autonomous weapons since May: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Holy See, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Sierra Leone, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States. All nations that have spoken out have expressed interest and concern at the challenges and dangers posed by fully autonomous weapons.

Together with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, ICRAC urges nations to prepare for extensive and intensive work next year, both within the CCW and outside the CCW context.  We urge states to develop national policies, and to respond to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions’ call for national moratoria on fully autonomous weapons. We urge states to come back one year from now and agree to a new mandate to begin negotiations. The new process must be underscored by  a sense of urgency.

Peter Asaro, vice-chairman of ICRAC said “The actions of the CCW this week are a hopeful first step towards an international ban on autonomous weapons systems.’

Mathew Bolton delivered a statement on behalf ICRAC at the UN CCW meeting yesterday. As a group of experts we are prepared to help any nations with expert discussions of autonomous weapons systems and to help develop clear definitions for the language to be used in a treaty to ban them. Video footage of the statement, ICRAC’s first ever statement in an official diplomatic forum, is available here.

ICRAC recently coordinated the circulation of a “Scientists Call” to ban fully autonomous weapons systems, signed by more than 270 Computer Scientists, Engineers, Artificial Intelligence experts, Roboticists and professionals from related disciplines in 37 countries, saying: “given the limitations and unknown future risks of autonomous robot weapons technology, we call for a prohibition on their development and deployment. Decisions about the application of violent force must not be delegated to machines.”

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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