Richard Moyes, Article 36
The Luddite uprisings two hundred years ago highlighted the social and economic impacts of changing technologies of production, and the capacity for technologies to serve as a focal point for social protest. Recent decades have seen successful international civil society mobilisations, focused around the harmful effects of certain weapons –leading to treaties banning anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. Now there is a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – calling for a ban on weapons can kill without direct human control
The growing impetus and technological capacity for weapon systems with greater autonomy is one of the emerging challenges regarding the control of weapons internationally. We already see greater autonomy in the use of tele-operated drones – but where current systems are still directly controlled by a pilot (albeit sitting many miles away) there are plans afoot that could take the human ‘out of the loop’ altogether.
After being deployed on a mission, these so called ‘fully autonomous’ weapons would have the capacity to choose and engage targets without further human intervention. In the military planning documents of certain governments, the greater degrees of non-lethal autonomy being given to existing systems, and the automatic targeting used in certain weapons already deployed (such as the Harpy anti-radar weapon, the Phalanx ship defence system and sensor fused weapons), non-governmental organisations like Article 36 see the warning signs for a situation where machines are given the power to decide who to kill.
In April 2013, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched in London to stop this from happening. Calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, the campaign is made up of non-governmental organisations from different countries and different backgrounds working together towards a common goal. NGOs are not the only actors concerned about this issue. Also in April, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns released a report to governments at the Human Rights Council in which he called on states to enact national level ‘moratoria’ – to freeze the development of such weapons and allow time for international discussion of the moral challenges they present.
The UK was the only state in the Human Rights Council debate on this report to speak strongly against its findings – rejecting the call for a moratorium and arguing that existing international law is sufficient to control these weapons. However, in the UK’s House of Commons on 17 June, the government was rather more progressive. Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt noted that by the UK Government’s interpretation existing international law applicable to weapons would prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons:
“As I had the chance to read the hon. Lady’s speech before the debate, I noticed that she used the phrase ‘Furthermore, robots may never be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law’. She is absolutely correct; they will not. We cannot develop systems that would breach international humanitarian law, which is why we are not engaged in the development of such systems and why we believe that the existing systems of international law should prevent their development.”
By recognising that fully autonomous weapons “will not” be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law (and certain analysts argue the opposite), this position provides a significant barrier to the development of such systems. Furthermore, in a previous statement to parliament 26 March 2013, the government has asserted that “the operation of weapons systems will always be under human control.”
This position from the UK offers some grounds for optimism, but the key challenge now is to press the government to delineate what level of “human control” is considered adequate to ensure weapons meet our moral, legal and policy standards. The UK already has weapons where the final targeting decision is made by a computer (albeit in very narrow circumstances), so this explanation of what constitutes sufficient human control is a pressing issue.
Article 36 (the NGO) takes its name from article 36 of Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions, a legal article that places an obligation on states to review new weapons, means and methods of warfare to ensure that they meet legal obligations. Bound by this law, the UK undertakes such reviews at a national level, albeit in secret. Those conducting the reviews would need to have some detailed explanation of the level of human control that is necessary for a weapon to accord with UK policy if these reviews were going to be effective. It is this delineation, of what constitutes ‘meaningful human control’ that we are now calling on the UK to make public in order to ensure that our rejection of fully autonomous weapons is watertight.
The way in which technologies reshape relationships between people and institutions is profound. In the case of weapons, changes in technology and in the distribution of technologies continue to recalibrate and restructure how we, as a broad human society, think about and organise the practice of killing each other. For organisations in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, allowing machines to select who lives and dies in a conflict environment crosses a fundamental moral line. How we delineate the level of human control necessary in relation to individual weapon systems, and individual attacks, will be revealing of how we ensure control over weapons in our society more broadly.