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The Rechstag Building, home of the German Parliament, in Berlin.  © 2007 Jorge Royan

(Berlin) – Germany should cooperate with like-minded countries to open negotiations on a new treaty to prohibit weapons systems that would select and attack targets without human intervention, Human Rights Watch said today.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, is convening a conference on the future of arms control in Berlin on March 15, 2019. The conference will consider emerging technological threats, such as fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots. The prospect of such weapons raises a host of serious ethical, legal, technical, proliferation, and international security concerns.

“Germany should turn its statements on the need to prohibit killer robots into action by launching negotiations of a new ban treaty,” said Mary Wareham, the Arms Division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Public expectations are rising that political leaders will act decisively to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons.”

Wareham will represent the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots at the March 15 conference.

In a new survey by the market research company Ipsos of 26 countries, 61 percent of respondents opposed the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems. In Germany, 72 percent of those polled opposed such weapons systems, while 14 percent supported them and 14 percent said they were not sure.

The Ipsos poll also asked those opposed to such weapons systems what concerned them the most. In Germany, more than three-quarters – 77 percent – answered that lethal autonomous weapons systems would “cross a moral line because machines should not be allowed to kill.” More than half – 60 percent – said the weapons would be “subject to technical failures.”

At the September 2018 opening of the UN General Assembly, Germany’s foreign minister called on states “to ban fully autonomous weapons – before it is too late!” Germany often highlights the need to maintain meaningful human control over the decision to kill another human.

Rather than promoting a ban treaty, however, Germany, along with France, has proposed a non-binding political declaration to affirm the importance of human control of weapons systems.

“Germany recognized the unacceptable harm caused by antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions when it negotiated and signed the treaties prohibiting these weapons,” Wareham said. “These treaties have been enormously effective without the signature of some major powers. A new treaty is urgently needed to stigmatize the removal of meaningful human control over  selecting and engaging targets.”

At the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in November, Germany and more than 80 other countries agreed to continue diplomatic talks on killer robots in 2019. But the talks lack a clear commitment to or timetable for negotiating a treaty.

Russia, Israel, South Korea, and the United States indicated at the November 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. This shows that a new avenue is urgently needed to prohibit fully autonomous weapons before they become operational.

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. The lack of agreement among nuclear weapons states to disarm also led other countries to create the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons via the UN General Assembly.

In November, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called lethal autonomous weapons systems “politically unacceptable and morally repugnant” and urged states to prohibit them. Since 2013, 28 countries have called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. 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.

Countries and other responsible entities should endorse and work for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch said. In one 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 100 nongovernmental organizations in 54 countries working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons. It will hold a public event in Berlin on March 21 to present information about the issue, followed by a global meeting of its campaigners from March 22 to 23.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will join more than 80 countries, as well as UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for the seventh CCW meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva on March 25 through 29.

“Political declarations, promises of transparency, and other measures that fall short of a new ban treaty will be insufficient to deal with the multiple challenges raised by killer robots,” Wareham said. “Governments such as Germany should be helping to negotiate the ban treaty now.”

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