Killer robots to remain science fiction?

May 15, 2014

Miriam at CCW May 2014Over the past week something special has been brewing in Geneva. Special because diplomatic discussions hardly ever take place on weapons of the future. Also both arms control campaigners and diplomats noticed that the discussions were unusually lively, especially for an often cynically disregarded platform for disarmament issues.

By Frank Slijper

From 13-16 May the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has been meeting in Geneva to hear experts and to discuss “questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems”, more commonly known as killer robots. The purpose of the CCW is to ban or restrict the use of specific types of weapons that are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately – which, we believe, is the case for killer robots.

Noting that “Geneva has a historical record that is second to none for achieving results in disarmament and international humanitarian law negotiations”, Michael Møller, acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva said in the opening statement: “This Meeting of Experts is only a first step towards addressing lethal autonomous weapons. In doing so, I urge delegates to take bold action. All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened. You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control.”

Earlier this year PAX released a report highlighting eight key concerns regarding killer robots. As founding member of the international Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, PAX was actively involved in the discussions during these four days in Geneva.

Like other coalition members, such as Human Rights Watch and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, PAX made a statement during the opening session, highlighting its concerns about these emerging technologies and emphasising that some level of human control over weapon systems is always required.

In her statement, Miriam Struyk told the audience of diplomats and experts that for PAX the issue is “first and foremost an ethical one: humanity should not surrender meaningful control over decisions of life and death to machines. We believe these weapon systems go against the principles of human dignity. […] The core question for us is: do we want to delegate the power to make decisions over life and death to a machine? Can and do we want to outsource morality? Or should we take a pause and see what kind of human control over weapons is adequate or meaningful? While technology rushes forward, we need to take a time out to ensure that not only lives, but also a concept of the value of human life, are preserved in the long term.”

Over the last year a rapidly growing number of states, organisations and scholars from a range of relevant disciplines have expressed concerns about the trend towards fully autonomous weapons. Therefore this week in Geneva was such an important event in making clear steps to prevent the development towards complete autonomy of weapon systems. But until November, when the next round of talks takes place, a lot of work has to be done to take this process to a higher level. While it is still unclear where the diplomatic process of discussions on putting whatever limits to lethal autonomous weapons will eventually lead to, one thing is clear: a very pro-active civil society campaign will make sure it will leave no stone untouched to work towards a ban on killer robots.

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