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CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 1

Time to get serious before it's too late
25 March 2019


Mary Wareham

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The goal of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has not changed since it was co-founded in October 2012: We are working to preemptively ban the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots.

A stigma is already becoming attached to the prospect of removing meaningful human control from weapon systems and the use of force. That’s because delegating life-and-death decisions to machines crosses a moral “red line”. The many fundamental legal, operational, moral, technical, proliferation, and other concerns with fully autonomous weapons are not going to disappear, but rather multiply.

It’s increasingly clear that killer robots must be regulated via a new treaty. Calls to ban killer robots are multiplying rapidly, from the United Nations Secretary-General to the European Parliament. Media interest is increasing, not diminishing. A new Ipsos poll of 26 countries shows that public opposition to fully autonomous weapons has grown over the past two years from 56 percent to 61 percent.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is rapidly expanding and is now comprised of 100 non-governmental organizations in 54 countries. Over the past year, campaign members in 50 countries have undertaken activities at the national level to build awareness and secure political support for the goal of a new treaty to ban killer robots. Our campaigners are talking with officials and government representatives at the African Union and other regional bodies in an effort to foster greater understanding and solidarity around the goal of a new ban treaty.

We have come here this week from Berlin, where more than 100 campaigners from 34 countries met to strategise on how to build greater support for the goal of banning killer robots, especially at the national level. There was strong interest in a public event convened by the Campaign to elaborate our concerns and invite support for our goal of a preemptive ban treaty.

Such a new treaty is achievable and, we believe, inevitable. But will it be too late? A new treaty is urgently needed, before advances in artificial intelligence and related technologies make these weapons a reality.

Representatives from more than 80 states have participated in the six Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems since 2014. As this seventh meeting begins, those states should feel good about the efforts they have made to explore some of the concerns raised by allowing machines to select and attack targets without further human intervention.

The strong interest that countries are showing in these diplomatic talks indicates their desire to be seen to be doing “something” about this concern. Those CCW meetings have shown that there is now widespread agreement on the need to retain some form of human control over future weapons systems and the use of force. The time is now ripe to move to negotiations.

This week we urge states to elaborate their views on the concept of human control over weapons systems and the use of force. We hope to hear from states on their preferred option for dealing with the multiple challenges raised by killer robots and urge those that have not yet done so to express their support for the goal of prohibiting fully autonomous weapons.

We’re not leaving the CCW, yet. However, we’re working hard to build the political and public support necessary for creating a new treaty. By November, it should be abundantly clear that the only viable option for the CCW is to move to a negotiating mandate.

If that fails then it’s obvious that states must pursue another path to create the ban treaty.

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