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Killer Robots: Select Committee Report Highlights NZ Policy Flaws

As the year comes to an end, so too does the time left for meaningful action to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapon systems - weapon systems designed to use algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to independently select targets and attack, without any human intervention beyond the initial activation - informally known as killer robots.

Over the past decade, there has been an ever increasing level of international and national concern about autonomous weapon systems, which pose an unprecedented and imminent threat to humanity. There are significant ethical, legal, technical, operational and human security concerns about autonomous weapons, which have been widely condemned by the UN system, states, parliaments, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as thousands of AI researchers, roboticists and tech experts, non-governmental organisations, faith leaders and youth networks here and overseas. It is clear that action is urgently required to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons through new international law, as well as national legislation, to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, if and when it is used.

Reflecting this, the Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (ANZKRC) launched the ‘Act Now on Killer Robots' Petition to Parliament on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020, requesting: “the House of Representatives, as a matter of urgency to: a) enact legislation to prohibit the development, production and use of lethal autonomous weapon systems in New Zealand; and b) urge the Government to support negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force by prohibiting such weapons.”

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Regrettably, the urgency of this issue is not reflected in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee Report (SC Report) on the petition which was released last month. The SC Report does not fully support the request for New Zealand to take domestic action even though the urgent need for this was highlighted in all of the submissions supporting our petition: from the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (appointed members), the AI Researchers Open Letter, the Youth Call for Action on Autonomous Weapons, and from eight non-governmental organisations and individuals [1].

The SC report does say that the development of national legislation and guidelines should accompany the international multilateral work - but there is little sign of progress at the international level, which provides even more impetus for national action in the interim to ensure that New Zealand does not become involved in the development or deployment of autonomous weapons.

As we pointed out in our written and oral submissions on the petition: “it is crucial that New Zealand acts with urgency to develop national legislation on autonomous weapon systems because even when multilateral negotiations get underway, it will take some years for new international law to be negotiated and adopted. National legislation is something that New Zealand can, and indeed should, do now - it does not need to wait for international action.”

Furthermore, the SC Report fails to comment on the flaws in New Zealand’s policy on autonomous weapons, which was released between the time our petition was presented to parliament (30 September 2021) and the SC oral hearing on 7 April 2022.

The lack of any reference to national action is one obvious flaw in the policy, but the most notable weakness - which the SC Report should have highlighted but did not - is around the ethical concerns about whether it is ever acceptable for machines using sensors, operating on lines of digital code, to track, hunt down and kill human beings.

While New Zealand’s policy refers to banning weapons that are unpredictable and uncontrollable, it does not mention prohibition of weapons that target humans - that prohibition is absolutely essential if the underlying ethical imperative of preventing machines using sensors and digital code from targeting and attacking humans is to be achieved.

In addition, the policy states that New Zealand will support interim measures such as non-legally binding guidelines or declarations, but such measures are clearly insufficient to deal with this threat. More than 70 governments have explicitly called for new binding international law on autonomous weapons: law that may need to be negotiated via a fast track diplomatic process, as was done to ban landmines and cluster munitions, because the Conventional on Certain Conventional Weapons multilateral forum where this has been discussed over the past few years is clearly going nowhere.

Overall, the SC Report reveals a disappointing lack of understanding of the issue (in one section apparently conflating autonomous systems for search and rescue with autonomous weapon systems), and of the need for urgent action before it is too late. It is unclear whether this is because the primary consideration of the petition was by a Select Committee that does not generally work on humanitarian disarmament issues, rather than the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee (FADTSC) which has had killer robots on its agenda since 2013. The petition was eventually referred to the FADTSC in June 2022, but the Committee chose not to be briefed by ANZKRC on recent developments before releasing the Report.

Regardless of this, the urgency of the need for action cannot be overstated: there has been reported use of weapon systems with autonomous capabilities in Libya in 2021, and more recently in Ukraine and elsewhere; and a number of states are developing an increasing arsenal of land, sea and air-based autonomous weapon systems.

The ICRC, Stop Killer Robots campaign and others have outlined the three key requirements of new law on autonomous weapons as: • a general obligation to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force; • prohibitions on autonomous weapon systems that cannot be used with meaningful human control and prohibitions on systems that would target human beings; and • positive obligations to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained over systems that are not prohibited.

If New Zealand really does have a principled position on humanitarian disarmament, as it so often states, then now is the time to take meaningful action on this.

Firstly, it is time to develop its policy on autonomous weapons to include all three key requirements listed above. Secondly, it is time to make it clear to other like-minded states that New Zealand wants to see diplomatic negotiations on a legally binding instrument containing prohibitions and regulations on autonomous weapons, and an obligation to ensure meaningful human control of all weapon systems at all times, begin as soon as possible; and it must commit to taking a leading role in this. Thirdly, it is time to put some effort into really considering what it can do at the national level to ensure that New Zealand and New Zealanders do not become involved in the development or deployment of autonomous weapon systems.

Words without action are meaningless when it comes to rapidly escalating threats such as those posed by autonomous weapon systems: the ethical imperative to do everything possible to prevent this entirely avoidable disaster for humanity must take precedence over all other considerations, and New Zealand must act now.

Further information: all of the submissions and documents related to the 'Act Now on Killer Robots' Petition to Parliament, including the SC Report, are available on the Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign to Stop Killer Robots site,

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