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Debating Proposals for a Possible International Convention on Robotic Weapons


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Posted on 03 October 2012
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by mbolton


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In the last few years there have been increasing calls for a global regulatory framework to govern robotic weapons. Just yesterday, influential counter-terrorism correspondent Peter Bergen called for a treaty to manage and mitigate drone proliferation. Earlier this year, along with Thomas Nash and Richard Moyes of the advocacy group Article 36, I called for a complete ban on autonomous armed robots, saying “Decisions to kill and injure should not be made by machines and, even if at times it will be imperfect, the distinction between military and civilian is a determination for human beings to make.” More conservative commentators have also recognized the need for some normative framework for robotic weapons. In 2011, an interdisciplinary group of legal, security and defense intellectuals from Consortium on Emerging Technologies, Military Operations, and National Security (CETMONS), argued in a paper for the Columbia Science and Technology Review that:

Enough concern and information exists now to consider appropriate governance models in a timely and proactive manner; yet, the time to take action is short before the current window of opportunity to design a relevant governance or oversight system for LARs [Lethal Autonomous Robotics] closes.

The 2009 statement by International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), which called for bans on autonomous weapons, the arming of robotic weapons with nuclear arms and the deployment of armed robots in space is probably one of the most developed proposals I have seen. As a member of ICRAC, I have endorsed this statement. However, I have been considering ways to flesh out the ICRAC proposal with further provisions building on the precedents of the landmine and cluster munition treaties, as well as the draft Arms Trade Treaty (currently still being negotiated) and the broader corpus of international humanitarian law governing conduct in war.

Yesterday, I published an article (for Global Policy’s online Comment & Opinion section) and a post on my blog outlining possible provisions for an International Convention on Robotic Weapons. I am a political scientist, not a lawyer or roboticist, so my purpose in doing this is to provoke discussion and dialogue, not to pin down precise language. Moreover, while I have used the ICRAC statement as a foundation, this is my own personal adaptation and expansion of it and so should not be interpreted as an institutional position of ICRAC. Following discussions since yesterday, I have consolidated my proposed provisions into a revised list:

A. Outright Bans on Robotic Weapons Incapable of Discriminating Between Combatants and Non-Combatants and/or that Cause Disproportionate Harm

  1. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of armed autonomous unmanned systems that make decisions to kill without a ‘human-in-the-loop’;
  2. Prohibition of arming robotic, particularly ‘unmanned’, systems with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, blinding lasers, landmines, cluster munitions or other weapons prohibited by international humanitarian norms.

B. Restrictions on Deployment and Targeting to Ensure Discrimination and Proportionality and Limit Aggressive Deployment

  1. Limitations on the development, deployment and use of robotic systems to ensure discrimination and proportionality in targeting, prevent civilian casualties and limit psycho-social harm;
  2. Prohibition of robotic deployment of explosive violence in populated areas;
  3. Limitations on the range and weapons carried by remotely-operated ‘unmanned’ systems and on their deployment in postures threatening to other states;
  4. Regulation of the use of so-called ‘less-lethal’, ‘non-lethal’ or ‘pain’ weapons by robotic systems;
  5. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of robot space weapons.

C. Restrictions on the Import, Export, Trade, Transshipment, Brokering and Transfer of Robotic Weapons

  1. Prohibition of the trade or transfer of robotic weapons, parts, components, related technologies and munitions, to countries and armed groups that commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law;
  2. Transparent reporting on the trade and transfer of robotic weapons.

D. International Cooperation in the Mitigation of the Harm Caused by Robotic Weapons

  1. International cooperation in the reconstruction of communities damaged by robotic weapons;
  2. Recognition of the rights of survivors of robotic weapon violence and international cooperation in the provision of victim assistance;
  3. National and international mechanisms for recording the casualties of robotic weapon violence;
  4. National reporting on treaty implementation;
  5. International cooperation on treaty implementation, including technical assistance.

Do you think a treaty is needed to govern drones and other robotic weapons? What would such a treaty cover? How would it be monitored and enforced? On reading my proposal, a friend asked me whether it makes more sense to focus on the banning and circumscribing the effects of weapons (indiscriminate and disproportionate harm) rather than types of weapons (like robotic weapons, landmines, cluster munitions, etc.). What do you think? 

Dr. Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Pace University (Note that the views expressed here are the author’s alone and have not been endorsed by the International Committee for Robot Arms Control).


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Draft Arms Trade Treaty Omits Explicit Reference to ‘Unmanned’ Weapons


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Posted on 25 July 2012
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by mbolton


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On Tuesday morning, 24 July, the chair of the Diplomatic Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) released his long-awaited draft of an international instrument to regulate the trade in conventional weapons.

Unfortunately, as I explain in my commentary piece for Global Policy today, the draft treaty is…well…drafty. There are several major holes in the text that give states considerable room for maneuver at the expense of efforts to reduce human suffering in armed conflict.

In particular, the Scope of the ATT has been narrowed from some of the committee drafts, which aimed to regulate ‘all conventional arms, either manned or unmanned’ to the seven categories of arms covered by the UN Register on Conventional Weapons plus small arms and light weapons. The explicit reference to ‘unmanned’ weapons has disappeared and there are weak provisions for controlling technological systems with both potential dual uses — that could be weaponized. It is thus unclear whether the treaty would apply to Predator drones that have not yet been fitted with missiles.

If it passes, this draft ATT could establish norms against dealing arms — robotic or otherwise — to abusers of human rights and and humanitarian law. However, its lack of strong provisions in the Scope could also stymie efforts to regulate and constrain the  robotic weapons that are becoming increasingly popular in the military forces of industrialized countries.

UPDATE 30 July 2012: On 26 July, the chair of the conference released an updated draft of the treaty text, but it also failed to include strong provisions for unmanned systems, particularly dual use ones like drones. The next day, the conference collapsed as the US, Russia, China and a few authoritarian states stalled the negotiations. There is still a chance that a treaty, based on the draft text, will pass in the next year, but the exact shape of the Treaty and process for adoption is, as of  today, unclear.

Matthew Bolton, Department of Political Science, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Pace University New York City.


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