News Roundup: Banning Lethal Autonomous Robots

Posted on 31 October 2013 by Frank Sauer

Over the last couple of months, lethal autonomous robots (LARs) went from a sidelined issue to not only a hotly and widely debated topic but most importantly an official item of United Nations (UN) arms control diplomacy. This post provides an overview over recent media coverage as well as events and statements given at the UN.

The First Secretary and representative from the France Permanent Mission to the UN, Anais Laigle, reported that LARs will be discussed at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) conference in November. NBC reported that Switzerland, France, and Egypt were interested in the regulation of LARs that the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) proposed. NBC reported that “representatives” of Austria, Germany, the United States, France, Brazil, Morocco, and Algeria also were interested in regulation. The NBC article also suggests that the discussion about LARs will be complicated by the secrecy of LAR programs, citing criticism from NYU Law human rights professor and ICRAC legal advisor Sarah Knuckey. She said:

“We’re not going to know what laws are going to be programmed [into the robots], and where they’re going to be used.”

The article also mentioned ICRAC’s opposition to such secrecy quoting Jody Williams who said:

“I don’t like my tax dollars being used on weapons that are not even discussed in the public domain… We have every right and every responsibility to have a public discussion as to where war is going.”

An article from Co.EXIST reported on the UN visit by activists, technologists, and others to raise awareness for a ban on LARs. The article cites Jody Williams’ warning that the governments are on a slippery slope towards developing LARs and that “in the loop” killer robots may “just mean the programmer” is “in the loop.” The article also mentions ICRAC chairman Noel Sharkey and his concerns about LARs, particularly their potential ability to distinguish targets, “proportionality-test,” and properly recognize the surrender process of combatants. The article also reports that “272 engineers, computer scientists and roboticists” recently co-signed the ICRAC’s letter to the UN to implement a ban.The article clarifies that ICRAC does not oppose non-autonomous weapons or peaceful autonomous robots.

Another article in the International Business Times reported on ICRAC’s call for “urgent international action” and HRW’s warning that LARs would be developed. HRW was quoted expressing concern that civilians were at risk by the development of LARs and stating that all killing decisions should be made by humans. The article further mentions the Pentagon’s downplaying of the development of LARs.

Computerworld reported that human rights organizations and representatives have been at the UN calling for a ban on LARs.  Like the Co.EXIST article, they quote HRW’s Mary Wareham saying that HRW does not oppose armed robots, but it wants to ensure that humans remain in control of kill decisions and expresses concern that the military is working in the direction towards greater autonomy. The article also articulates Wareham’s concern that there are currently only policies, not laws governing the use of LARs.

A recent article in TIME underscored a surge of activity and momentum in the effort to stop LARs. The article explains that although LARs are not currently in use, the X-47B and the South Korean robot sentry are signs of the increasing autonomy of armed robots. It also cites arguments from those opposing LARS, including the possibility of LAR malfunction, hacking, as well as moral issues.

The Voice of Russia outlet published a lengthy article outlining the concerns about LARs. It seems to claim that Pentagon analysts will have operational autonomous robots in 20 years and humans will become the most insignificant factor in their use by 30 years, the article says. It cites professor Chistoph Heyns, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who voiced concern over the legal responsibility of LAR killing and his warning that their use will lead to “mechanical slaughter.”  The article explains that many there are many “experts” who desire regulation of LARs. The article draws a parallel to current drone use, arguing that targeting mistakes of drones in current use could apply to LARs. The author also argues that LARs will not be able to appropriately react to unexpected behavior. It also underscores three pro-LAR arguments. Namely, that they would make better decisions more quickly because they could process more information, would not be hampered by emotion, and could make decisions faster.

On 29 October, ten states spoke on fully autonomous weapons or lethal autonomous robots at UN General Assembly First Committee:
Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Ireland, Japan,Netherlands, Pakistan, Switzerland, United Kingdom, the United States. For all except Pakistan, Switzerland, UK, and the US, this was the first time they had made a public statement on the topic. At the outset of the 2013 First Committee, Pakistan also expressed its concerns over the weapons, as did Austria, Egypt, and France. Relevant extracts from the statements follow.

Austria: Prevention and accountability for deliberate targeting of civilians during war, as well as disproportionate collateral casualties as a result of military action, are at the centre of our concern. Today, arms technology is undergoing rapid changes. The use of armed drones in conflict situations is increasing. In a not too distant future, fully autonomous weapons systems might become available. As a result, the implications of these developments on IHL require urgent engagement by relevant UN forums and further discussion with a view to ensure that these weapons will not be used in a way that violates universally recognized principles of IHL such as the proportionality of the use of force or the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Costa Rica: Furthermore, we worry that many problems identified with the use of armed drones would be exacerbated by the trend toward increasing autonomy in robotic weapons. My delegation feels that we should begin international dialogue soon on the issue of lethal autonomous robotics, and calls for States to consider placing national moratoria on their development, production and use and discuss eventual prohibition.

Egypt: Egypt reiterates that technology should not overtake humanity. The potential or actual development of Lethal Autonomous Robotics raises many questions on their compliance with international humanitarian law, as well as issues of warfare ethics. Such issues need to be fully addressed. Regulations should be put into place before such systems (LARs) are to be developed and/or deployed.

France: We must look to the future and address its challenges. An important debate has emerged in recent months on the issue of Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs). This is a key debate as it raises the fundamental question of the place of Man in the decision to use lethal force. It is also a difficult debate, as it highlights many ethical, legal and technical issues. It covers technologies which are not yet fully developed and which are dual-use. The terms of this debate need to be clarified. To be useful and allow progress, this discussion needs to be held in an appropriate disarmament forum, combining the necessary military, legal and technical expertise and all the States concerned.

Ecuador: My country believes that the international community should deepen the debate around Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and fully autonomous armed robots. The high number of victims indiscriminate use of drones in civilian areas has also caused serious ethical and legal questions that the development of new military technologies precluding participation and human responsibility in decision-making, is urgent a discussion would be on these new problems in the field of conventional weapons. – Google Translation

Greece: Greece remains firmly committed to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and its Protocols and continues to believe that the CCW remains the most appropriate forum for the discussion on a Protocol on Cluster munitions, as it includes both the most significant producers and users, and will thus be in a position to strike a delicate balance between military utility and humanitarian concerns. It is in this same forum that we believe that the topic of Lethal Autonomous Robotics (LARS) should be discussed considering that the CCW is in a unique position to gather the competent diplomatic, legal and military expertise to address this emerging issue.

Ireland: The same principles which provide the foundation for the Arms Trade Treaty must also be applied to all topics of debate in relation to conventional weapons. Whether with regard to anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, transparency measures, the environmental impact of weapons, or the use of incendiary weapons, to name a few, our focus must always be to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, including the rights of women. These same principles must also apply to weapons which will be developed in the future, such as fully autonomous weapons systems. Constructive engagement and debate is essential to ensure that our actions comply with the principles which underlie the United Nations and international law.

Japan: Japan recognizes growing interests, in the international community, in the issues regarding fully autonomous weapons. We think it useful to start discussion about basic elements related to those weapons, including their definition. CCW, where military, legal and other arms control experts are involved, could provide an appropriate venue to address these issues. Japan looks forward to discussing these issues with other interested States and civil society.

The Netherlands: The possible development of Lethal Autonomous Robot Systems raises many legal, ethical and policy questions. In the Netherlands we have started a discussion on this issue with involvement of the ministries of Foreign Affairs and. Defence, relevant partners of civil society and academia in order to get a better understanding of the developments in this field and the related problems. In answering the question about the legality of weapon systems we are guided by international law and in particular by International Humanitarian Law. While developing new weapon systems, states should remain within the boundaries of international law. We will participate actively in discussions on LARS and in that regard support the proposal of the CCW chair for an informal discussion on LARS in the framework of CCW.

Pakistan: Another disturbing trend is the development of new types of conventional weapons like the Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs), and the use of armed drones which cause indiscriminate killing of civilians. The use of drones, especially outside the zone of conflict or the battlefield, not only poses a legal challenge but also has serious human rights and humanitarian implications. It needs to be stopped immediately. The use of drones needs to be brought under international regulation before it spirals out of control. Similarly, LARs, which would choose and fire on pre-programmed targets on their own without any human intervention, pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and the notion of affixation of responsibility. They could alter traditional warfare in unimaginable ways. Their development needs to be addressed at the relevant international fora including at the UN and the CCW Conference of State Parties. The states that currently possess and use such weapons cannot afford to be complacent that such capabilities will not proliferate over time and hence they too shall become vulnerable unless such weapons7 production is curtailed forthwith under an international regime.

Pakistan: Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs) – that would chose and fire on pre-programmed targets on their own without any human intervention – pose a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and the notion of affixation of responsibility. … We recognize that consensus building will be a difficult task, but we take this opportunity to put forward some ideas that we feel are essential to promote greater global security: … Nine, The development and use of drones and Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARS) need to be checked and brought under international regulation. Besides the UNGA and its First Committee, the CCW Conference of State Parties also provides a forum to address these issues.

Switzerland: In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the importance of conventional arms in disarmament and international security. New technologies are changing warfare and challenges loom on the horizon. One emerging issue is that of “fully autonomous weapon systems” as highlighted in this year’s report of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters. We note with interest that the Secretary-General should consider commissioning a comprehensive study, involving UNlDlR and other research institutes and think tanks, in order to support the appropriate efforts. Switzerland is of the view that there is a need to understand, identify, and clarify the potential challenges associated with fully autonomous weapon systems and the relevant technology. Switzerland therefore recognizes the need for a structured intergovernmental dialogue in the existing forum of the Conventional Weapons Convention (CCW) on this issue. Switzerland stands ready to take an active part in the discussions.

United Kingdom: I am looking forward to returning to Geneva for the meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and our discussions on lethal autonomous robotics. This is an important issue, and one that sits well within the expert remit of the CCW. I hope that we can bring the UK’s expertise and experience to bear.

United States: Mr. Chairman, the United States is a High Contracting Party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and all of its five Protocols. The United States attaches importance to the CCW as an instrument that has been able to bring together states with diverse national security concerns. We look forward to the annual meetings of High Contracting Parties in November and to establishing a program of work for 2014 that will allow CCW States to continue supporting the universalization of the CCW and the implementation of all its Protocols. During this past year, questions have arisen regarding the development and use of lethal fully autonomous weapons in forums such as the Human Rights Council. As the United States delegation to the Human Rights Council stated, we welcome discussion among states of the legal, policy, and technological implications associated with lethal fully autonomous weapons in an appropriate forum that has a primary focus on international humanitarian law issues, if the mandate is right. The United States believes the CCW is that forum. CCW High Contracting Parties include a broad range of States, including those that have incorporated or are considering incorporating automated and autonomous capabilities in weapon systems. The CCW can bring together those with technical, military, and international humanitarian law expertise, ensuring that all aspects of the issue can be considered. Accordingly, we support an informal, exploratory discussion of lethal fully autonomous weapons and are engaged with our fellow CCW High Contracting Parties in formulating an appropriate mandate that will facilitate these discussions.

As of today, a total of 28 states have spoken publicly on fully autonomous weapons: Algeria, Austria, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.”

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