New Zealand to help ban killer robots

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 6 December 2021

The Aotearoa New Zealand government will push for new international law to prohibit and limit autonomous weapons systems, a move announced on 30 November by the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Hon. Phil Twyford. The new policy is detailed in an 11-page Cabinet paper entitled “Autonomous Weapons Systems: New Zealand Policy Position and Approach For International Engagement.”

The Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has welcomed the policy as “a good basis to move forward on this unprecedented threat to humanity, to global peace and security, and to the foundations of international law.” It has acknowledged the year-long “effort put into securing all-of-government and tech industry agreement on a principled position.”

The policy release comes at a major juncture for diplomatic talks on killer robots as New Zealand prepares to participate in Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the United Nations (UN) on 13-17 December 13-17. New Zealand shared the policy with a CCW meeting on killer robots held on 2-8 December and its interventions illustrate some of the major policy elements.

According to New Zealand, the policy has “confirmed” its support for negotiating a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems. At the meeting, it said it would like to see “a direction of travel toward express prohibition that are not sufficiently predictable or controllable” to meet legal or ethical requirements. New Zealand also found that new international law on killer robots should contain “positive obligations on other autonomous weapons systems.”

New Zealand’s policy does not explicitly support prohibitions on weapons systems that would target human beings, but such systems could fall under the criteria of unacceptability from an ethical and legal standpoint. As Human Rights Watch notes, “much opposition to killer robots reflects moral repulsion to the idea of machines making life-and-death decisions.” Indeed, significant attention has been generated by the Minister’s statement that the prospect of delegating the decision to take human life to machines is “abhorrent and inconsistent with New Zealand’s interests and values.”

New Zealand new position commits it to also support interim steps and measures such as non-legally binding guidelines, declarations or norms, without prejudice to the future adoption of legally binding measures.”

During the meeting, Portugal suggested the CCW agree to compile a “compendium” of how existing international humanitarian law applies to autonomy in weapons systems. New Zealand said that such a compendium “could have value” but warned that stock taking is not a sufficient outcome for the CCW’s work.

New Zealand expressed support for the chair’s proposal that the killer robots meeting produce a “political declaration” on autonomous weapons systems to adopt at the Review Conference, but stressed that any declaration be regarded as an interim step and not interpreted “as end of the road for this work.”

Towards the end of the meeting, on 7 December, the United States circulated a 2-page proposal for the CCW to consider an international “code of conduct” over the next two years, calling it the “best option” given wide differences of positions. Australia, Japan, and the UK supported the proposal, while Cuba said it could consider it. New Zealand said it looked forward to the US elaborating its thinking on a possible code of conduct.

These and other proposals for non-binding measures have been criticized for their ambiguity and called an unambitious and inappropriate solution to fundamental concerns over removing human control from the use of force. The Aotearoa New Zealand campaign warns such measures are “a means to delay any effective progress by aggressive states that perceive autonomous weapons systems as a path to increased military and political dominance.”

The CCW meeting on killer robots ended on 8 December without agreeing on any substantive matters or proposing the future mandate for CCW deliberations on the matter. Russia, India, Israel and the US were the primary blockers preventing this outcome. The decision on what to do on killer robots must now be taken by the Review Conference under its president France.

It looks as if the most the Review Conference will muster is to roll over its mandate to discuss killer robots and meet for up to two weeks in 2022. The exact wording could change slightly, but this weak outcome does not represent an adequate mandate for future work. It will fall far short of appropriate multilateral response to the concerns raised by killer robots. The meeting’s disappointing conclusion strongly illustrates why the consensus based CCW process is incapable of taking the killer robots issue forward.

Part of the challenge New Zealand faces with its new position is that by being open to all possible measures, it may be viewed as adopting a go slow approach, even if the ultimate destination is new international law. New Zealand and other nations would do best to avoid stooping to the low level of ambition that the CCW has demonstrated over and over again.

New Zealand’s policy expresses a willingness to explore all avenues to achieve new international law in cooperation with interested states and actors. That matters given the CCW’s inability to move forward. A strong majority of states have explicitly expressed their desire to negotiate a new international treaty, which provides a solid basis for undertaking negotiations outside the CCW.

As Article 36 recommends, positive states should “stay positive and focus on giving collective expression to their commitment to negotiating a legal instrument. Falling into the ‘blame game’ will only make partnership-building more difficult in the future.” As such, the CCW represents a pivotal moment for middle ground states such as New Zealand to step up and help lead the way.

In a recorded video message to the Review Conference, the Minister for Disarmament reminded delegates of the CCW’s goal to protect civilians & prevent unnecessary suffering. He again highlighted the imperative and importance of moving with urgency to adopt legally-binding prohibitions & controls on autonomous weapons systems.

The New Zealand government should to move with urgency to explicitly support the goal of a legally-binding instrument to retain meaningful human control over the use of force. Over the coming year, New Zealand to engage with like-minded states to launch negotiations on such a treaty.

A petition presented to parliament by the Aotearoa New Zealand wing of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in September articulates this call. Its submission and supporting materials have been endorsed by approximately 99 artificial intelligence experts from around the country, dozens of youth, and non-governmental organizations.

The petition’s other recommendation, to enact national legislation to ban autonomous weapons, also deserves the government’s support. Strong legislation would help bolster the emerging norm against removing meaningful human control from the use of force. National law could help raise awareness and provide momentum to the international consideration of this concern. It would give the government backbone to step up its engagement with any and all states willing to cooperate on the goal of new international law on killer robots.

Reporting of New Zealand’s policy announcement by domestic media outlets Newsroom and Stuff led to notable international coverage, including an article in The Washington Post noting the country’s longstanding reputation as “an influential leader in disarmament.” Democracy Now and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert contrasted New Zealand’s proactive position with continued US opposition to any moves to establish legally-binding measures to curb autonomous weapons systems. In The Times former UK foreign secretary William Hague compared New Zealand’s position with the UK, stating that “the UK reliance on humanitarian law is now inadequate. It is a holding line rather than the position of a leading nation trying to shape the future.”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>