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The Broken Chair, a statue in support of the bans on landmines and cluster munitions, stands outside the United Nations in Geneva. © 2017 Mary Wareham/Human Rights Watch

In welcome news, the Aotearoa New Zealand government has announced it will push for the adoption of new international law to prohibit and limit autonomous weapons systems. The policy commits New Zealand to play “a leadership role in building an inclusive coalition of states, experts and civil society” to achieve this goal. 

According to the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, Phil Twyford, the prospect of delegating the decision to take human life to machines is “abhorrent and inconsistent with New Zealand’s interests and values.”

Indeed, killing or injuring people based on data collected by sensors and processed by machines would violate human dignity. My organization, Human Rights Watch, and other members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are concerned that relying on algorithms to target people will dehumanize warfare and erode our collective humanity.

A new report due out this week from Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic looks at the imperative of swiftly moving to strengthen and clarify legal rules on autonomous weapons systems. It argues a new international treaty can provide the framework the world needs to address the fundamental concerns that autonomy in weapons systems raise for international humanitarian law, ethics, international human rights law, accountability, and security.

New Zealand says it is open to any opportunities to make progress on the goal of a new international treaty on lethal autonomous weapons systems. That openness matters because, after eight years of inconclusive talks, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) has served its time as an incubator for this concern. It’s time to find another avenue to negotiate a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems.

The best option is to negotiate and adopt a new international treaty through a stand-alone process, as was the case for the treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. Another is to go through the United Nations General Assembly, where the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was negotiated.

An independent process to negotiate new law on autonomous weapons would likely provide the most inclusive process and deliver the strongest international standard to stigmatize the removal of human control from the use of force. Such fast-track processes are characterized by a strong partnership between states and key actors, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and nongovernmental organizations.

A new international treaty will require political leadership. With the Cabinet’s consideration and approval of the new policy, New Zealand is demonstrating high-level support for the goal of creating new international law on autonomous weapons.

The move to finally set out New Zealand’s policy and come off the fence to support new law has been a long time coming. For years New Zealand officials were “in listening mode” when it came to autonomous weapons, with successive foreign ministers unable to determine if New Zealand should support the development of new international law.

The decision to commit to a ban comes after eight years of pressure from the Aotearoa New Zealand wing of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a national coalition comprised of 11 non-governmental organizations that is coordinated by Peace Movement Aotearoa. In September, the campaign delivered a petition to parliament, urging the New Zealand government to support negotiations on a new international treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force.

The policy process saw Colmar Brunton conduct a public opinion survey of 2,000 people that found that 72 percent of New Zealanders oppose the use of autonomous weapons systems. Across all demographic groups (based on gender, age, ethnicity, geographic location, income or educational attainment), more New Zealanders oppose killer robots than support them. Women are far more likely than men to oppose the use of autonomous weapons systems (81 percent, compared to 62 percent).

Twyford deserves credit for driving the policy development process forward, speaking with New Zealand’s main multilateral allies, giving speeches at universities around the country, addressing a symposium with international and national experts in April, and hosting a “dialogue” in August with speakers from the New Zealand Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and other civil society groups.

Since the Delta variant arrived on New Zealand shores, these in-person events have shifted online to webinars, a youth consultation, and an online petition hand over in September by the Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

The campaign’s petition also recommends domestic legislation to ban autonomous weapons, a proposal that has serious merit and deserves cross-party support. Strong legislation would help bolster the emerging norm against removing meaningful human control from the use of force. By adopting new legislation at home, New Zealand could help raise awareness and provide momentum to international efforts.

Over the coming year, New Zealand needs to engage with like-minded states to launch negotiations on a new international treaty on autonomous weapons systems. It should work to find convergence and common ground for the substantive provisions that the treaty should contain. As the government’s new policy states, such a treaty should consist of both positive obligations and prohibitions. It needs to speak clearly to the components of “meaningful human control.”

With the goal of a new treaty on killer robots now identified, it’s time for a plan of action to make it a reality.

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