US, Russia Stall Attempts to Ban Killer Robots

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — As the US withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan on August 31 following a deadly 20-year-old war, one of the messages coming out of Washington was clear: the US will curtail “boots on the ground” in all future conflicts—even though there are still more than 40,000 American troops stationed around the Middle East.

But the wave of the future may be ‘killer robots’—mostly the deployment of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—in “shadow wars,” particularly against terrorist groups worldwide.

In one of its last attacks, this time directed at a mis-identified ISIS-K terrorist safe house, the US launched a drone strike with a single Hellfire missile on August 29 in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, among them as many as seven children, which the Pentagon later described as “a tragic mistake”. But no one was punished for these civilian killings.

The attack was guided not by artificial intelligence (AI) but by faulty intelligence—as it has occurred frequently in civil wars and battle zones in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan—with perhaps many more such deadly debacles to come.

Meanwhile, the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which took place in Geneva from December 13-17, 2021, was expected to be a crucial meeting on the future of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). But predictably, it failed.

Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns at the United Nations Association, based in UK, told lDN, at the conclusion of the meeting on December 18, “the outcome is tone deaf to the cries for urgent action from the majority governments, the tech community and the UN Secretary-General”.

It’s no coincidence that, despite eight years of discussion, this UN body has nothing to show for it while military investments in autonomous weapons and swarming robots have skyrocketed, he said.

“The handful of powerful states developing these weapons are the same states responsible for blocking progress through the creation of new legally binding rules,” said Donaldson, who is also a steering committee member of the ‘UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’.

“The limits of the CCW as a forum have been laid bare. But a strong coalition of states, civil society and tech leaders are determined to make progress,” he pointed out.

The successful cluster munitions and landmines treaties have shown that progress can be made outside the UN and progressive states look ready to step up to the plate.

“In 2022 we expect the majority who are serious about ensuring the decision to kill is never outsourced to a machine will start work on a new treaty to ban these weapons. Those states guilty of blocking action at the UN will have to decide “which side of history do we want to be on?” Donaldson declared.

In a hard-hitting statement released December 17, Amnesty International, one of the leaders of the ‘Stop Killer Robots Coalition’, said it’s now clear that a minority of states, including the US and Russia, already investing heavily in the development of autonomous weapons, are committed to using the consensus rule at the UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to hold the majority of states hostage and block progress towards an international legal response to autonomy in weapons systems.

Following the failure of the 6th Review Conference of the CCW to agree steps to negotiate new law, there is recognition of the urgent need for a legal response which echoes the conditions that led to the creation of the landmine and cluster munitions treaties.

“After 8 years of discussions with a clear majority of states consistently calling for the negotiation of new international law to ensure meaningful human control over the use of force, the 6th Review Conference has adopted a mandate that falls shockingly short of the outcome the world needs. States will continue CCW meetings next year without agreeing to work towards a specific goal,” said Amnesty.

Speaking of the proposed code of conduct by the US, Ray Acheson, Director, Reaching Critical Will, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom told IDN “based on what we have seen from the US and the other states blocking negotiations of a treaty to prevent the development and use of autonomous weapons (such as Russia, Israel, India, and handful of others), a code of conduct agreed by consensus would not be effective”.

These countries have spent the last eight years espousing the alleged virtues of autonomous weapon systems. “We need a legally binding instrument that includes clear prohibitions and restrictions that ensure meaningful human control is maintained over weapons and the use of force, and that safeguards human rights and dignity,” Acheson said.

“In contrast, a code of conduct as envisioned by the US assumes the development of autonomous weapons as a given and even promotes that, normalizing increasingly autonomous violence. We’ve already gone down this path of distancing humans from the violence they undertake with the use of armed drones and other remote warfare technologies.”

These weapons have caused incredible human suffering and civilian casualties, they have undermined international law and lowered the threshold for the use of force, and they have disproportionately been used and tested against populations in the global south, Acheson pointed out.

Autonomous weapon systems would exacerbate these harms and more. The development of such systems must be considered in the context of the development of other emerging autonomous and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Biometric data collection; facial, voice, gait, and cardiac recognition; predictive policing software; tools of surveillance; mechanisms to categorise and sort human beings—all are increasingly being used by militaries and police globally.

“We can see how, time and again, governments, militaries, and police forces use advanced technologies for violence and control. We can see the trajectory of these developments and the world they are actively constructing. We need to act now to prevent weapons from operating on the basis of algorithms, sensors, and software,” Acheson declared.

In its statement, Amnesty also pointed out that Austrian Foreign Minister, Alexander Schallenberg and New Zealand’s Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Phil Twyford both called for the development of new international law regulating autonomous weapons.

The new government coalition agreements of Norway and Germany promise to take action on this issue. There has been consistent cross regional leadership at the UN with 68 states calling for a legal instrument.

Thousands of tech and AI experts and scientists, the Stop Killer Robots campaign, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the ICRC, 26 Nobel Laureates and wider civil society have called for new international law. The stage is now set for an external process on killer robots.

In a position paper, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says after initial activation or launch by a person, an autonomous weapon system self-initiates or triggers a strike in response to information from the environment received through sensors and on the basis of a generalized “target profile”.

This means that the user does not choose, or even know, the specific target(s) and the precise timing and/or location of the resulting application(s) of force.

The use of autonomous weapon systems entails risks due to the difficulties in anticipating and limiting their effects. This loss of human control and judgement in the use of force and weapons raises serious concerns from humanitarian, legal and ethical perspectives.

The process by which autonomous weapon systems function:

  • brings risks of harm for those affected by armed conflict, both civilians and combatants, as well as dangers of conflict escalation
  • raises challenges for compliance with international law, including international humanitarian law, notably, the rules on the conduct of hostilities for the protection of civilians
  • raises fundamental ethical concerns for humanity, in effect substituting human decisions about life and death with sensor, software and machine processes.

Since 2015, ICRC has urged States to establish internationally agreed limits on autonomous weapon systems to ensure civilian protection, compliance with international humanitarian law, and ethical acceptability.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last September it is difficult to conceive of a more destabilizing invention than autonomous lethal weapons.

He said a proposed Global Summit of the Future, to be held in two years, is expected to consider all these issues and more. 

The summit would also consider a New Agenda for Peace that would include measures to reduce strategic risks from nuclear arms, cyberwarfare and lethal autonomous weapons.  

A new United Nations Futures Lab will publish regular reports on megatrends and risks. To support these efforts, Guterres said, “we will launch a UN 2.0 that offers more relevant, systemwide, multilateral and multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges of the 21st century.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 December 2021]

Photo: UNMAS, MINUSMA Mark International Day for Mine Awareness. Robots have been deployed for mine clearance by military authorities in many countries, but concerns are rising over regulation of autonomous weapons which use Artificial Intelligence. UN Photo/Marco Dormino

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 21 December 2021.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please give due credit.

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