The New Zealand Parliament buildings in Wellington. 

© 2015 Michal Klajban

New Zealand has banned semi-automatic firearms, magazines, and parts that can be used to assemble prohibited firearms after 50 people were killed and dozens wounded in a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

The legislation has been praised around the world for coming so swiftly after these senseless and hateful attacks. Yet the reality is that it came far too late for many.

This is because successive governments failed to carry out legislative changes recommended in 1997 by an official review of firearms control in New Zealand. One lawyer who co-wrote that report has expressed regret that lives would have been saved in the Christchurch terror attack if semi-automatic weapons had been prohibited two decades ago, as the inquiry recommended.

As a Kiwi, I was shocked to learn about the Christchurch attacks. The news came in as I was in Berlin attending an arms control conference convened by Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. He opened it by stating that “we cannot hold a conference on new weapons systems … without also calling to mind what happened in New Zealand … and what weapons are capable of doing.”

The conference considered various emerging technologies that raise serious concerns, particularly fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems, or killer robots. These are completely different weapons, but the same concerns apply around government inaction on calls to regulate.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.” His 2018 Agenda for Disarmament details the many serious ethical, legal, moral, operational, proliferation, technical, international security, and accountability concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons. The secretary-general recommends that countries create a treaty to prohibit such weapons systems and thereby ensure that “humans remain at all times in control over the use of force.”

Support for a ban on fully autonomous weapons is growing, with 28 countries already declaring their support.  But New Zealand is not among them. New Zealand has promised since 2013 to provide a coherent policy position on fully autonomous weapons, but still hasn’t done so.

New Zealand has not commented on the formal proposal made last year by Austria, Brazil, and Chile to begin the urgent negotiation of “a legally-binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions” of weapons systems. In fact, at last month’s diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva, New Zealand stated that such weapons could be developed and used as long as they pass a legal review and are used lawfully.

This narrow view ignores the serious concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons and is out of step with a majority of countries, which have said that existing international humanitarian law will not be sufficient to prevent the development of killer robots.

Once fully autonomous weapons are developed, they will proliferate and if the experience with other weapons is any guide they will be used by states and non-state armed groups with no regard for the laws of war. Restraining such use will become extraordinarily difficult at that point.

New Zealand’s current stance on killer robots stands in stark contrast to its bold political leadership to tackle the harm caused by landmines and cluster bombs. It does not complement the active and central role that our country plays in contributing to multilateral disarmament diplomacy, demonstrated most recently in New Zealand’s central contribution to creating the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The fundamental challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons present an opportunity for New Zealand to demonstrate bold political leadership and make full use of the unique portfolio provided by the minister for disarmament and arms control. But the starting point needs to be much more ambitious than the meek suggestions that officials have offered so far.

New Zealand should heed the call of its non-governmental organizations, technology companies, scientists and academics, and artificial intelligence experts, who have repeatedly encouraged the government to take a firm position to prohibit fully autonomous weapons.

And it should take a lesson from those previous governments that failed to act on the 1997 recommendations for firearms control. Joining the call for international action to ban fully autonomous weapons will help save lives—and maybe humanity as well.