23 Oct 2019

Campaign puts pressure on Japan to act on deadly robots

Activists against the development of robots able to select and attack targets without human input have accused the US and Russia of frustrating international efforts aimed at outlawing the development of these weapons

By David Cowan


The leader of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, has called on Japan to demonstrate "bold leadership" and join the growing number of states and international organisations that are calling for a ban on the development of weapons systems that would be able to select and attack targets independent of any human intervention.    

Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and the global coordinator for the killer robots campaign, met with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya to present her case. Wareham described efforts by a number of nations to develop and deploy AI-guided weapons systems as “a fundamental threat to humanity." She said creating robots that are capable of attacking without any human control is "outsourcing killing.”

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and it urgently needs to be strengthened to tackle the serious threats posed by killer robots,” she told a press conference in Tokyo. “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," she added. 

Although Japan has participated in talks on killer robots and repeatedly stated that it has "no plans" to acquire or deploy the technology, it has not supported the calls for a new treaty. In calling for Japan to be proactive, Wareham inisisted, “Instead of a back-seat role in the international talks on killer robots, Japan should take the lead and actively help negotiate a treaty." The Japanese government has not made a statement on the issue since her meeting with the ministers. 

The campaign to counter unrestricted robots on the battlefield began in 2013 and today has the support of 57 nations and 113 non-governmental organisations. The first country to support the campaign was Pakistan; the position of the government there was in part a result of the frequent use of US drones against insurgents in the border region with Afghanistan. 

But the international community has yet to reach a consensus on a binding agreement to ban killer robots, which Wareham says would be comparable to the 1999 pact that outlawed landmines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect in August 2010. This year, 92 nations attended the eighth Convention on Chemical Weapons meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, held in Geneva, but there was no deal on signing a formal agreement.

Wareham blamed Russia and the US for the lack of agreement. She said the two countries repeatedly refused to accept any reference in the meeting's final report to the need for "human control" over the use of force. The Russian representative also claimed it's "premature" to discuss the potential dangers of autonomous weapons systems "until they are produced," she said. A number of other countries, including Israel, South Korea and the UK, have similarly refused to sign up to a binding agreement. She argues that if the international community delays legislation until the weapons have already been developed. then it will be much more difficult to prevent the systems from being used. 

But Wareham insists that the "many fundamental moral, ethical, legal, operational, technical, proliferation, international stability and other concerns raised by killer robots are multiplying, rather than diminishing." She concluded, “The campaign is gathering momentum and we still see an international treaty as inevitable," adding "it's just a case of who is going to negotiate it, where it will be inaugurated and how strong it will be."


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