Ban on killer robots gaining ground

Image: De grote conferentiezaal in Geneve.

April 16, 2018

The number of countries pushing for a ban on killer robots is growing. This is one of the results of a week of talks held by the UN last week in Geneva.

China is one of the countries which has come out for a ban, an important development since that country is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Twenty-six countries are now calling for a ban on killer robots, with Austria, Djibouti, and Colombia joining China as newcomers. Austria the first EU state to call for a ban. “There was also substantive progress during last week’s talks,” says Miriam Struyk, PAX programme leader for killer robots and participant in the talks in Geneva. “The overwhelming majority of countries now see human control as the central element that determines if an autonomous weapon falls within the boundaries of international law. That’s an important development.”

The UN will convene a second week-long session on lethal autonomous weapons, better known as killer robots, in August. Questions being discussed include the following: what characterizes these weapons? What role should people have in deciding to use violence? And what measures are needed when it comes to the legal and humanitarian challenges these weapons pose?

PAX’s input
PAX experts took part during the entire week of talks in Geneva, along with other civil society organizations from around the world. PAX works with these organizations in the international coalition Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which seeks to ban lethal autonomous weapons. PAX released a statement during the conference calling on countries to come up with concrete measures to address the legal, ethical and security concerns surrounding killer robots, after more than four years of talks. In addition, PAX experts spoke with various representatives of European countries.

PAX also hosted a panel discussion. Johan Andresen, Ethics Council Chair of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, the largest such fund in the world, was one of the speakers. He said the fund is considering whether it is acceptable to invest in companies developing autonomous weapons. To answer this question, according to Andresen, a ban is desirable, but not essential for investors to take action.

Four options
At the week´s close, Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India, who chairs the discussions, concluded that four options were on the table. The first option is that existing law is sufficient to address concerns about these weapons. There would have to be more clarity as to how existing law would be implemented regarding the unique characteristics of autonomous weapons. The second option is coming up with new law in the form of a legally binding instrument, such as a ban. The third option is a political statement in which countries set up a code of behaviour. The fourth option is that it is too early to look at potential policy options due to lack of clarity.

Human control
For PAX, a legally binding instrument is the only option which adequately addresses the legal, ethical and security concerns. This standpoint is held by a more and more countries, among them the group of African countries. It is important that a ban is in place before the technique has progressed to the point that autonomous weapons without meaningful human control of the critical functions of target selection and attack are a reality.

The Middle Ground
Some states feel it is too soon to talk about a ban. Not surprisingly, this predominantly includes countries aiming to develop killer robots. These countries should keep in mind that in the future, killer robots could be used against their own population.

But there is a much larger group taking a middle position. These are states concerned about these weapons which recognize the importance of human control of these weapons and are open to regulation.

What´s next?
During the second week of UN discussions in August PAX will continue to push toward a ban. The aim is for states, during the annual meeting of the UN in November, to agree on a mandate for formal negotiations in 2019. With the number of countries supporting a ban on killer robots growing, that looks like an increasingly realistic goal.

Read also UN should ban killer robots a.s.a.p.

More about killer robots and why they should be banned.

Get involved with our peace work.
Subscribe to the PAX Action Alert.