Disarmament and Arms Control Minister Phil Twyford says fighting for arms control and disarmament is in New Zealand's DNA, and it is now time to focus on autonomous weapons. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Aotearoa is stepping up in the battle against killer robots, with the Government confirming it will join calls for an international treaty on the use of autonomous weapons systems

New Zealand will join the push for an international treaty banning and regulating the use of autonomous weapons, the Government has announced.

However, the country is leaving the door open to a non-binding political declaration and other interim measures, despite concerns from arms control groups that such a move could undermine the case for a legal agreement.

Disarmament and Arms Control Minister Phil Twyford has revealed New Zealand’s policy on autonomous weapons, also known as ‘killer robots’, having previously indicated a desire for the Government to take a lead on the issue.

In a paper to Cabinet, Twyford said the rapid development of autonomous weapons presented “serious legal, ethical and security risks that engage Aotearoa New Zealand’s interests and values”.

Twyford said, and Cabinet agreed, that New Zealand should advocate for a legally-binding instrument like a treaty or convention, prohibiting autonomous weapons systems which were not “sufficiently predictable or controllable to meet legal or ethical requirements”, along with broader controls.

The Government would also support interim steps such as non-binding guidelines and declarations “without prejudice to the future adoption of legally binding measures”.

“I think there’s something in New Zealand’s DNA that [means] we’re willing to take on these fights … there are massive ethical issues about delegating to machines the decision on whether to take a human life or not.”

Twyford told Newsroom he was happy with the Government’s “robust” position on the issue, which followed consultation with the civil society, the technology sector, the NZ Defence Force and other government agencies.

He acknowledged reaching agreement on a treaty would be difficult, given the opposition of major powers like Russia, the United States and United Kingdom, but said the world had overcome similar opposition on landmines and cluster munitions.

“I think there’s something in New Zealand’s DNA that [means] we’re willing to take on these fights … there are massive ethical issues about delegating to machines the decision on whether to take a human life or not.”

Confirmation of New Zealand’s position comes ahead of a United Nations ‘review conference’ in Geneva starting December 13, seen by human rights organisations as a deadline for action.

However, whether the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) event goes ahead remains to be seen.

The World Trade Organisation was forced to indefinitely postpone its ministerial conference, due to take place this week, due to border restrictions imposed to deal with the Omicron variant. A spokesman for Twyford said it was too early to say how, if at all, the CCW review conference would be affected by Omicron.

‘Don’t wait for international action’

The Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has welcomed confirmation of New Zealand’s stance, but expressed concern about several aspects of the Government’s plans.

Campaign coordinator Edwina Hughes told Newsroom the group wanted a ban on any weapons systems which could independently target humans, not just those which were “not sufficiently predictable or controllable”, due to the inherent risks involved.

Hughes was also worried that the Government’s willingness to accept interim actions short of a treaty would give cover to countries opposed to a legally binding document, while its work in the international arena should not preclude it from implementing a domestic ban.

“National legislation is something that New Zealand can, and indeed should, do now – it does not need to wait for international action. The ethical imperative to do everything possible to prevent this entirely avoidable disaster for humanity must take precedence over all other considerations,” the campaign said in a submission to Parliament.

“If there is no national prohibition, New Zealand researchers, tech companies and the NZDF may become involved in the development or even deployment of autonomous weapon systems in the interim, regardless of the consequences.”

Twyford did not believe the signing of a political declaration would reduce the likelihood of a legal treaty, saying past experience on similar issues suggested such agreements could act to rally people towards the ultimate goal.

Twyford told Newsroom it was possible a treaty could expand to cover autonomous weapons beyond the ‘unpredictable and controllable’ criteria New Zealand had laid out, but the Government’s position served as a starting point for discussions.

“We haven’t drafted a detailed blueprint for what … a treaty might end up looking like and there are a lot of issues like the one you’ve just referenced, that will be worked out as we campaign, as we negotiate, as we argue the case at the UN and around the world.”

The mention of interim measures was “a pragmatic recognition” that winning consensus on legally binding rules would take some time, and some steps would be needed along the way to build a critical mass of support.

The Government had not ruled out domestic legislation on autonomous weapons, but believed it made sense to first focus on international action.

It had worked with the AI Forum and was not aware of any New Zealand companies working on autonomous weapons systems, while the Government’s international advocacy for a treaty would make its position clear at home, Twyford said.

Green Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom it was “a huge relief” for New Zealand to be fully participating in the international process, but there was a good case to introduce domestic legislation regardless of whether or not the country was producing weapons.

“It’s really not an either/or. I think we could say the same thing about the nuclear ban – we’re not a nuclear power, so why have a ban? Well it’s to demonstrate leadership and show the rest of the world what we stand for.”

A domestic ban could also build a case for customary international law if other countries followed and prohibitions on autonomous weapons became a generally accepted practice, Ghahraman said.

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

Leave a comment