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Japan: Retain Human Control Over the Use of Force

New Ban Treaty Needed to Tackle Threats Posed by ‘Killer Robots’

© 2012 Russell Christian for Human Rights Watch
(Tokyo) – Japan should throw its support behind growing calls to prohibit weapons systems that would select and attack targets without human intervention, Human Rights Watch said today. Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and global coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, will address a symposium on “Human Control over Autonomous Weapon Systems” convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the University of Tokyo on September 7, 2019.

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and it urgently needs to be strengthened to tackle the serious threats posed by killer robots,” Wareham said. “Japan should turn its statements on the need to retain meaningful human control over the use of force into action by cooperating with like-minded nations to open negotiations on a new treaty to ban killer robots.”

Since 2014, Japan has participated in international talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” It often states that it has “no plans” to acquire such weapons and highlights the need to retain meaningful human control over the use of force. However, Japan does not support the negotiation for a new treaty to address mounting concerns over fully autonomous weapons and has yet to join the group of 29 countries calling for a prohibition on such weapons.

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge nations to begin negotiations for a new treaty to require meaningful human control over the use of force, which is effectively equivalent to a ban on weapons that lack such control. Both prohibitions and positive obligations are needed to ensure that systems that select and engage targets do not undermine ethical values and are always subject to meaningful human control.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, has nearly doubled in size over the past year, to a current total of 113 nongovernmental organizations in 57 countries. The Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR-Japan), serves on the campaign’s leadership body.

In August 2019, Japan and 92 other nations attended the eighth Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Due to multiple objections from Russia and the United States, the meeting could not agree to a credible outcome document, which means there will be more diplomatic talk and no regulatory action to prevent a future of fully autonomous weapons.

Russia and the US repeatedly rejected any references in the meeting’s final report on the need for “human control” over the use of force, while Russia claimed it is “premature” to discuss the potential dangers of lethal autonomous weapons systems “until they’re produced.” But once that happens, it will be much harder to prevent their use. Both countries are investing significant funds to develop weapons systems with decreasing human control over the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets.

The many fundamental moral, ethical, legal, operational, technical, proliferation, international stability, and other concerns raised by killer robots are multiplying rather than diminishing. On July 9, the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a declaration urging the 57 OSCE member states “to support international negotiations to ban lethal autonomous weapons.”

There is increasing evidence that fully autonomous weapons would fundamentally change the nature of war, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts, more than 20 Nobel Peace Laureates, and more than 160 religious leaders and organizations of various denominations also support a ban on killer robots. In 2018, Google released a set of ethical principles that includes a pledge not to develop artificial intelligence for use in weapons.

The 29 countries that have called for the ban are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

“From its previous support of the treaties to ban antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, Japan knows the value of taking an independent and principled position to respond to serious humanitarian threats,” Wareham said. “Instead of a back-seat role in the international talks on killer robots, Japan should take the lead and actively help negotiate a treaty.”

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