(Washington, DC) – More than three in every five people responding to a new poll in 26 countries oppose the development of weapons systems that would select and attack targets without human intervention, Human Rights Watch said today.
The survey by the market research company Ipsos was commissioned by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which Human Rights Watch coordinates, and conducted in December 2018. Sixty one percent of respondents said they oppose the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons, while 22 percent support such use and 17 percent said they were not sure. In a near-identical survey in 23 countries by the same company in January 2017, 56 percent were opposed, 24 percent not opposed, and 19 percent unsure.
“Public sentiment is hardening against the prospect of fully autonomous weapons,” said Mary Wareham, the Arms Division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Bold political leadership is needed for a new treaty to preemptively ban these weapons systems.”
The annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva decided in November 2018 to continue diplomatic talks on killer robots with no clear objective or timetable for negotiating a treaty, showing why a new avenue is urgently needed to prohibit these weapons before they become operational, Human Rights Watch said. In November, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called lethal autonomous weapons systems “politically unacceptable and morally repugnant” and urged states to prohibit them.
The 2018 Ipsos survey used respondent pools of 500 – 1,000 people in each country. The strongest opposition was in Turkey (78%), South Korea (74%), and Hungary (74%).
Opposition was strong for both women (62%) and men (60%) although men are more likely to favor these weapons (26%) compared to women (18%). Opposition increased with age: those most opposed were ages 50 to 64 (68%).
The 2018 Ipsos poll also asked those opposed to killer robots what concerned them the most. Two-thirds (66%) answered that lethal autonomous weapons systems would “cross a moral line because machines should not be allowed to kill.” More than half (54%) said the weapons would be “unaccountable.”
At the November meeting, governments agreed to continue diplomatic talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems in 2019. But the decision did not reflect the view of the majority of nations at the meeting that countries should begin formal negotiations of a legally binding treaty. The meeting rules, which permit a single country to thwart any action by the majority of countries, allowed Russia to block the start of negotiations and to reduce the amount of time devoted to the talks this year.
Russia, Israel, South Korea, and the United States indicated at the meeting that they would not support negotiations for a new treaty. These nations and China are investing significantly in weapons with decreasing levels of human control in their critical functions, prompting fears of widespread proliferation and arms races.
Since 2013, 28 countries have called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. El Salvador and Morocco added their names to the list during the November meeting. Austria, Brazil, and Chile formally proposed the urgent negotiation of “a legally-binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapons systems.
Past failures by the Convention on Conventional Weapons 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.
Countries and other responsible entities should not hesitate to endorse and work for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch said. For example, in June, Google issued a set of ethical principles, including a commitment not to “design or deploy” artificial intelligence for use in weapons.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, of which Human Rights Watch is co-founder, is a rapidly growing coalition of 88 nongovernmental organizations in 50 countries coordinated by Human Rights Watch that is working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons. The campaign has opened a new website to replace the one used since its inception in 2013.
“The Ipsos poll shows that public expectations are rising for governments to take the threat of fully autonomous weapons seriously and be willing to take strong action to retain human control over the use of force,” Wareham said. “The security of the world and future of humanity hinges on achieving a ban on killer robots.”
Further Analysis of the Ipsos Surveys on Killer Robots
Overall Opposition to Killer Robots in 2018
The 2018 Ipsos poll was conducted in 26 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and United States. The 2017 Ipsos poll was conducted in 23 of these countries, but not in Colombia, Israel, or the Netherlands.
The 2018 poll slightly revises the question from the previous poll and states:
The United Nations is reviewing the strategic, legal and moral implications of lethal autonomous weapons systems. These weapons systems would be capable of independently selecting targets and attacking those targets without human intervention. They are thus different than current day “drones” where humans select and attack targets. How do you feel about the use of such lethal autonomous weapons systems in war?
In the 26 countries surveyed in 2018, 61 percent of the respondents opposed killer robots, while 22 percent were not opposed, and 17 percent were unsure or undecided.
Of those who expressed a view, nearly three times as many respondents said they opposed killer robots as those who were not opposed.
A majority of respondents in 20 countries opposed killer robots. In 15 of those countries, 60 percent or more were opposed: Turkey (78% opposed), South Korea (74%), Hungary (74%); Colombia (73%); Germany (72%); Sweden (71%), Netherlands (68%), Spain (65%), Peru (65%), Argentina (64%), Mexico (64%), Belgium (63%), Poland (62%), Canada (60%), and China (60%).
Notably, a majority also opposed killer robots in Russia (59%); the UK (54%); and the US (52%). These nations are often identified as most in favor of fully autonomous weapons and have worked against a prohibition on such weapons.
The only countries where a majority of respondents did not oppose killer robots were India (37%), Israel (41%), Brazil (46%); and Japan (48%).
Changes in Opposition to Killer Robots from January 2017 to December 2018
In the 26 countries surveyed in 2018, 61 percent of the respondents opposed killer robots, compared with 56 percent of 23 of the same countries in 2017.
Of the 23 countries surveyed in both 2017 and 2018, opposition to killer robots increased in 14, though some of the increases are within the margin of error.
The biggest increases in opposition were in: China (up 24 percentage points); Turkey (up 21 percentage points), France, Poland, Hungary (all up 13 percentage points), and South Korea (up 12 percentage points).
Increases also occurred in Sweden (up 9%); US (up 7%); Germany (up 7%); India, Canada, Italy, Australia, and Belgium all also saw increases, though the increases were within the margin of error.
Of the nine countries where opposition decreased, the change was just 1 percent or 2 percent in five of the countries. The only substantial decreases in opposition were in Russia (10%) and Brazil (6%). South Africa and Japan had decreases that were within the margin of error.