“Banning killer robots is both politically savvy and morally necessary,” said Mary Wareham, the Arms Division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “European states should take the lead and open ban treaty negotiations if they are serious about protecting the world from this horrific development.”
Countries attending the annual meeting of states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the United Nations in Geneva will decide on November 15 whether to continue diplomatic talks on killer robots, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or fully autonomous weapons.
Since 2014, these states have held eight meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major disarmament treaty. Over the course of those meetings, states have built a shared understanding of concern, but they have struggled to reach agreement on credible recommendations for multilateral action due to the objections of a handful of military powers, most notably Russia and the United States. These nations, along with China, Israel, and South Korea, are investing significantly in weapons with decreasing levels of human control in their critical functions, driving fears of widespread proliferation and arms races leading to global and regional instability.
Past failures by CCW states parties to stem human suffering caused by antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions resulted in external diplomatic processes that delivered life-saving treaties to ban the weapons. Those treaties were the result of partnerships between like-minded countries, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and dedicated coalitions of nongovernmental organizations. The lack of agreement among nuclear weapons states to disarm led other countries to create the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons via the UN General Assembly.
“We clearly need to begin charting a new path forward in a new forum, by 2021 at the latest, as the current talks seem destined for failure,” Wareham said. “Commitments to discuss vague ‘normative frameworks’ and additional ‘guiding principles’ are simply a form of diplomatic treading water.”
Human Rights Watch co-founded and coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which commissioned the survey by the global public opinion and data company YouGov. The survey was conducted in October in Belgium, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland. The governments of these countries all agree that it is important to retain human control over the use of force, but none are currently working for new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems.
The poll asked: “Do you think [COUNTRY] should work towards an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems?” The YouGov survey used random respondent pools of 500 – 1,000 people in each country, except Germany, which used a random respondent pool of 2,047 people.
Seventy-three percent of survey respondents said they favor their country working for an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Thirteen percent did not, while 14 percent said they were not sure or preferred not to answer.
The strongest support was in Ireland (81 percent), the Netherlands (80 percent), Hungary (78 percent), and Spain (77 percent) followed by Italy (75 percent), Norway (72 percent), Switzerland (72 percent), Belgium (71 percent), and Germany (69 percent). In Finland, 60 percent of respondents favored their government working for an international treaty to ban killer robots, but more than a quarter (28 percent) said they did not know.
Support for creating a killer robots treaty was strong among both women (74 percent) and men (71 percent). However, more men (17 percent) opposed the idea of their country working to ban killer robots compared to women (10 percent), who were more likely to be undecided (16 percent) than men (12 percent).
All age groups polled expressed support for a treaty (from 67 percent to 78 percent). Those most in favor were age 55 or above.
Since 2013, 30 countries have called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, including Jordan and Namibia in 2019. Austria, Brazil, and Chile have formally proposed the urgent negotiation of “a legally binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapons systems.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a rapidly growing coalition of 130 nongovernmental organizations in 60 countries that is working to ban fully autonomous weapons and retain meaningful human control over the use of force. Human Rights Watch arms director Steve Goose and senior arms researcher Bonnie Docherty will address a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots briefing for CCW delegates on November 13 at the UN in Geneva.
“As the public learns more about the serious threat that fully autonomous weapons pose to humanity, they will expect legislative action,” Wareham said. “Governments need to provide more than just empty rhetoric affirming the importance of retaining human control over increasingly autonomous weapons systems.”