The disarmament sculpture at the UN. (Courtesy of Flickr user WorldIslandInfo.com. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
Building on successful campaigns to ban land mines and control the sale of conventional weapons, representatives of antiwar movements and a host of other civil society organizations meeting at the United Nations on June 6 turned their attention to a new menace whose development they hope to forestall: killer robots.
The briefing, sponsored by the Swiss government and the UN’s Department of Public Information NGO section, had a much broader agenda, as its title, taken from the preamble to the UN Charter, indicated: “Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” A theme soon emerged in the discussion between expert panelists and their audience, however: the potential power of civil society to force change in the way nations use and misuse war as government policy. The discussion turned to autonomous weapons.
The new campaign against “killer robots” is unique in that robotic weapons systems are still largely in development stages and under the control of human hands—even drone aircraft, while deployed without pilots or crew, are guided by military posts on the ground. Unlike the case of landmines, which were scattered around the world by the millions when the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator, Jody Williams, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, or the Arms Trade Treaty, designed to control a lethal existing global business worth $85 billion annually, the movement against robotic weapons has a chance to “nip in the bud” a new threat still in development, as a former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament, Jayantha Dhanapala, described it later. “This is doable,” he said in a conversation after the UN meeting.
Williams, who gave the most impassioned speech against autonomous weapons at the UN briefing, said that while nuclear disarmament and drone attacks are now important issues, “the greatest threat in the future is from killer robots.” The nightmare is not hard to imagine: even a small robotic “soldier” deployed in a tense urban area, “seeing” a teenage girl with a backpack full of books on her way home from school, could easily calculate the object as a suicide bomber.
Since its official launch on April 23 in London, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a movement against autonomous weapons and robot soldiers capable of choosing a target and attacking without human intervention, has taken off. Human Rights Watch, which released several reports or updates on the issue over the last year and was the initial coordinator of the campaign, has been joined by a number of other civil society groups. The campaign now has representatives in fifteen countries. Recently, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs has lined up behind the movement, said Dhanapala, now Pugwash’s president and a board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said in a message to the Human Rights Council, which debated robotic weapons on May 30: “The emergence of autonomous weapons calls into question the adequacy of measures to implement the rules of armed conflict that apply to all weapons systems…. There must be adequate human accountability at all times. Yet…how can accountability be maintained when humans are no longer involved in the final decision?”
The United States, which recently launched a pilotless combat jet from an aircraft carrier, is widely assumed to be leading research on robotic weapons, including robot soldiers. Christof Heyns, the independent special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report to the Human Rights Council in preparation for the May 30 debate that although “robots with full lethal autonomy” are not yet known to be deployed, numerous countries besides the United States also have or are developing robotic systems with the capacity for lethal uses, including Britain, China, Israel, Russia and South Korea.