Parliament is scheduled to vote today [May 30] on a motion to support a ban on fully autonomous weapons, often called or “killer robots.” Parliament should not hesitate to vote yes to reject these weapons systems that, once activated, would select and attack targets without meaningful human control.
Permitting machines to take human life in warfare or in law enforcement and other circumstances raises a host of serious ethical, legal, moral, operational, societal, technical and other concerns. These weapons don’t yet exist but are under development in several countries. Once they are created, it may be too late to stop their use.
Belgium has a rich history as a champion of humanitarian disarmament. It was the first country to have a national ban on antipersonnel mines and the first to ban cluster munitions. Belgium played a leadership role in the diplomatic process that created the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. A decade later, Belgium actively supported the creation of the 2008 treaty prohibiting cluster munitions. This engagement shows how countries can show important leadership when they come together to solve pressing humanitarian challenges.
Many who have studied the issue doubt that fully autonomous weapons would be able to respect the basic rules of international humanitarian and human rights law. And it is unclear who would be held accountable for actions taken by a fully autonomous weapon gone wrong.
For these and other reasons the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of non-governmental organizations, is calling for a pre-emptive ban on development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. We are not alone. So far, 26 countries, more than 20 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, nearly 200 faith and religious leaders, and thousands of experts in robotics and artificial intelligence all support the call to swiftly negotiate new international law to prohibit killer robots.
Last December, 116 of Belgium’s top roboticists, AI experts, and scientists issued a joint statement warning that fully autonomous weapons threaten human rights and human dignity. They called on the government to actively support efforts to conclude a new treaty banning fully autonomous weapons. Defense Minister Steven Vandeput put it succinctly in 2015, when he said that the prospect of fully autonomous weapons systems gives him “cold shivers.”
As international talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems enter their fifth year, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots sees an urgent need for governments to move from discussing the issue to taking preventative action.
Momentum is building to start negotiations on a treaty in 2019. Last month at a UN meeting, Austria and other states called for negotiations on a legally binding instrument to prohibit weapons systems that operate without meaningful human control over the critical functions of selecting and attacking targets.
Belgium accepts that the law has been written for humans rather than machines. From past experience, it should understand that ethical decisions by governments and by society at large have preceded and motivated the development of new international legal constraints in warfare, including constraints on weapons that cause unacceptable harm.
Yet Belgium has not spoken out for negotiating a treaty on fully autonomous weapons. It should affirm its credentials as a champion of humanitarian disarmament efforts. And it should join the growing calls to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems and the use of force.
The Belgian parliament faces an important choice today. Lawmakers should stand on the right side of history and heed calls to support a new treaty to prohibit fully autonomous weapons. This vote is a key opportunity to shape the future of warfare and law enforcement and to ensure the protection of civilians. Belgium should carry on its leadership as a champion of humanitarian action.