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New Zealand was in “listening mode” at the second multilateral meeting on “killer robots” at the United Nations in Geneva this month. No other country with similar disarmament credentials was as quiet, except perhaps Belgium.

It was an odd show for a nation known for its disarmament leadership. New Zealand was part of the core groups of nations that led the ground-breaking humanitarian disarmament processes to ban landmines in the mid-1990s and cluster munitions in the mid-2000s. After securing the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, New Zealand is now at the core of a group of countries working to advance the humanitarian rationale for abolishing nuclear weapons.


Perhaps all these ongoing contributions mean that New Zealand’s under-resourced diplomats are too busy to take on the additional challenge of autonomous weapons systems? Or did the recent speaking tour by Professor Ron Arkin, one of the main advocates for creating “ethical killer robots,” have an impact? Arkin spoke to audiences in Auckland and Christchurch during his March visit, attracting media interest.

The concern with autonomous weapons that has captured world attention in the past two years is that they would select and engage targets without further human intervention. The US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, UK, and other nations with autonomous weapons systems with various degrees of human control contributed actively to the deliberations at the second multilateral meeting on the topic. At the meeting, no nation said it is actively pursuing autonomous weapons systems, while only Israel and the United States indicated they are leaving the door open for the future acquisition of such weapons.

New Zealand’s lack of substantive engagement at the 2015 meeting on killer robots represents a failure to deliver on the commitment made by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully back in July 2013 that, “New Zealand will continue to participate in various international fora considering [lethal autonomous robots] and to develop national policy in this area.”

It is a far cry from New Zealand’s leading engagement on disarmament matters before 2011 when the 25-year-old portfolio for a disarmament and arms control minister was removed by the government without explanation and the disarmament ambassador pulled back to Wellington, leaving a solitary Geneva mission-based diplomat in place.

Last May, at the previous Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on questions relating to the emerging technology of “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” New Zealand’s representative had an entire page of talking points and identified “human control” as a key area of future work from both a legal and ethical perspective. New Zealand also recommended further deliberations on killer robots at the CCW and in other relevant fora, such as the Human Rights Council.

So the 2015 meeting on killer robots must have been a long week for the New Zealand diplomat tasked with keeping our country’s seat warm as a mere spectator. New Zealand had nothing to say on the technological advances behind the development of autonomous weapons systems and no questions on whether such weapons would be permitted under the existing laws of war. It didn’t speak on the human rights ramifications of autonomous weapons systems, such as their use in border patrols and law enforcement, or on the ethics of giving machines the power to elect and attack targets without further intervention. New Zealand was silent on the question of preemptively banning such weapons or the way ahead for multilateral deliberations.

We sat out the biggest debate of 2015 when it comes to dealing with future weapons systems and the way in which technology is changing the way wars are fought. A broad swath of nations began to engage substantively and take ownership of the challenges posed by autonomous weapons systems at the April meeting this year.

The breadth of nations that participated in the focused discussion on key technical, legal, and “overarching” issues including human rights and ethics and depth of their intervention represented progress for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which is calling for a preemptive ban on the weapons. The meeting saw a number of calls for intensified efforts over the next year to ensure the talks are productive.

National debate on autonomous weapons systems in countries around the world is also needed to help establish policy guidelines that diplomats can use to find points of convergence or common ground.

New Zealand would do well now to spell out its point of view on the concerns raised with weapons systems that would select and attack targets as well as expectations for where this process should end up. Otherwise we may find ourselves sitting out the biggest moral question of our generation - should humans give the power to select and attack a target over to a machine?

Mary Wareham is Human Rights Watch arms advocacy director and global coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. She is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and coordinated the Aotearoa New Zealand Cluster Munition Coalition and Campaign Against Landmines while based in Wellington from 2007-2012.

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