Advocates for a ban on ‘killer robots’ are hopeful of headway by the end of the year, as nations hash out the arguments for and against. What role is New Zealand playing – and could we be doing more?

Are we about to reach a turning point in the war against ‘killer robots’?

Roughly 50 countries gathered at the United Nations in Geneva last week for the first official diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems in nearly a year.

The talks will continue this week, but observers are happy with the tone of the conversations which have already taken place.

Mary Wareham, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division and a long-time campaigner for a ban on ‘killer robots’, told Newsroom the heightened sense of urgency seemed to be a direct result of the extra time for contemplation afforded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Disarmament and Arms Control Minister Phil Twyford was also happy with developments in Geneva, saying there was an emerging consensus for action.

“We’re quite encouraged by the greater level of engagement, and our view is that the time has come for the international community to come together to ban and regulate autonomous weapons systems.”

Twyford has previously expressed his enthusiasm for New Zealand to play a leading role in that work, and Wareham said the country could act as “a total catalyst for action”, citing Canada’s leadership on a treaty to ban landmines and Norway’s on cluster munitions.

“That is what has been lacking – we can’t just leave this to the diplomats and the officials to sort out. It needs to have a bold political push behind it.”

“If you’ve got machines and algorithms essentially making the decisions to identify, engage and execute in the battlefield, that, to me, is unacceptable.”

Many nations seem to agree that fully autonomous weapons systems should be banned, and meaningful human control a necessity for those which are allowed – which then raises the question of how to define full autonomy, and meaningful control.

Twyford said the Government was still developing a national policy to address some of those definitional issues, while safeguarding the NZ Defence Force’s ability to exercise with partners.

But on one question, New Zealand’s position was already clear: that it was “morally unacceptable” to delegate the decision to kill another human being to a robot.

“That’s the starting point for this discussion. Just because an autonomous weapon system can have the pause button hit, I don’t think – if you’ve got machines and algorithms essentially making the decisions to identify, engage and execute in the battlefield, that, to me, is unacceptable.”

Twyford said his hope was to take a paper to Cabinet by November, with a formal position finalised ahead of a December ‘review conference’ in Geneva seen by human rights organisations as a deadline for action.

But Wareham said the Government could not afford to take a back seat in the meantime.

“New Zealand loses a huge opportunity if it cannot step in and start weighing in substantively, as the other governments are doing at the moment. It kind of scuttles any opportunity to really look like we’re taking bold action and kind of relegates us to the countries who really don’t say much.”

There was support emerging for a total prohibition on weapons systems that by their nature selected and engaged without meaningful human control, particularly those which used machine learning algorithms with “unpredictable and inexplicable effects”, while there was also strong opposition to anti-personnel weapons systems which relied on profiles derived from data collected by sensors to identify, select and attack people.

Mary Wareham says some larger powers are starting to panic that the tide is turning against them on autonomous weapons. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

While a number of smaller countries are taking a more active role in advocating for a treaty, some of the larger powers continue to drag their feet.

China has indicated support for a ban, but the other permanent members of the UN Security Council appear at best lukewarm on the idea, with the likes of the United States and United Kingdom suggesting best practice guidelines (rather than a legal treaty) may be best.

The most hostile opposition came from Russia, with Moscow’s delegate arguing that “requiring machines to comply with principles and social consciousness would be absolutely absurd.”

The Russian representative claimed it was the military officers responsible for operating such systems who could be held accountable – an argument Twyford said “simply doesn’t stack up”.

“The very point of autonomous weapon systems is that humans will be absent from target identification, selection, engagement and execution, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to stop.”

For similar reasons, he gave short shrift to an American suggestion that technological advances could actually improve compliance with international law, by reducing human error and killing more accurately.

Wareham said the P5 members were “in a bit of a panic that there is a runaway train here, and that the developing countries and the kind of middle-ground countries are…starting to fight for the treaty that they want.”

Wareham said New Zealand needed to do better than its “weakly worded” endorsement of a treaty at Geneva, given the urgency of reaching agreement.

The opposition of large military powers is hardly a surprise, as Twyford said.

“If you look at all of the big disarmament treaties, the P5 and the major military powers have had to be dragged to the table to agree to these things, and a number of the world’s great military powers are going all out to try to develop this technology for military advantage.

“That’s the very reason that we have to act as an international community, because there’s a new arms race getting under way, and it will be impossible to stop.”

In our statement to the meeting, New Zealand’s representative said the country’s usual preference was to agree on legally binding rules, rather than lesser documents like a code of  conduct – but suggested that was not a bottom line.

“Our overarching objective is the effective regulation and control of autonomous weapons systems and we will pursue that in any form.”

Twyford said he believed a set of legally binding rules was the best solution, but New Zealand needed to remain flexible and willing to consider stepping stones, given the need to convince “a critical mass of other countries”.

But Wareham said New Zealand needed to do better than its “weakly worded” endorsement of a treaty at Geneva, given the urgency of reaching agreement.

“Sure, be open, you know, but this is the last chance: this is what you do at a review conference.

“Even if we’re not going to start the negotiations in December, we’ve got to call for it, we’ve got to fight for it.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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