How Belgium can stop the killer robots

This Tuesday, in the Defense Committee, questions concerning killer robots will be put to the competent minister. Belgium should initiate an international struggle with the use of autonomous weapons, the authors of this carte blanche believe.

Blowfish developed by the Chinese military industry. -DR

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Carte Blanche – Jonathan Bannenberg, Peace and Security Research and Information Group (GRIP); Merel Selleslach, Pax Christi Vlaanderen; Lod Devagener, Military Adviser, Mines Action Canada.
Published on 09/05/2022 at 14:47
Reading time: 4 minutes

EIn Belgium, two important initiatives are pending in the House of Representatives: a motion to pass a resolution and a bill to ban killer robots. These initiatives should inspire our parliamentarians to advance a world where technology is used to bring peace and justice, not to kill.

Unfavorable public opinion

Killer robots are lethal weapon systems with strong artificial intelligence, which allows them to detect, identify, select and attack a target completely autonomously, that is, without any human control. Although the weapon has yet to be used to its full potential, several international experts in robotics and artificial intelligence are warning of the dangers of developing it. Indeed, by trusting an algorithm that can potentially translate the cognitive biases of its developers and integrate racial, social or gender representations tinged with prejudice and other constructed representations of a threat to be eradicated, the use of (lethal) force based on the information collected by the sensors carries the risk of further dehumanization by reducing people to a mere combination of ones and zeros.

In addition, the loss of human control over the use of violence raises fundamental questions for us. Will international law always be respected? Who will be held accountable if something goes wrong: the system designer, the entity that ordered it, the one that deployed it? How to give credit to potential complainers?

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In Ukraine, reports of the use of weapons systems that can offer autonomous targeting options demonstrate that killer robots are not a far-fetched concept. Along with the ethical and legal dangers they pose, they also threaten the international balance and can also cause dangerous destabilization in Belgium. Moreover, in the context of a 2020 survey, 66% of Belgians are in favor of a ban on killer robots.

missed opportunity

Civil society, states and the UN have been working on this issue for a long time. In December 2021, at the UN Review Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva, states had a crucial opportunity to give a clear answer to concerns about killer robots. It ended in failure. No mandate has been adopted to start negotiations on a legally binding instrument guaranteeing human control over the use of force.

The results of the Review Conference reflect the blocking of a handful of states, including the US and Russia, but not the will of the vast majority of them, civil society or public opinion, the international community. After eight years of discussions, this setback shows that a process outside the Convention is now likely, as has already been the case with anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. Moreover, it seems that this is the only way to finally make real progress.

What can Belgium do?

Although Belgium spares no efforts in the international arena, in particular by chairing the Group of Governmental Experts responsible for finding solutions under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 2021, Belgian diplomacy, unfortunately, did not fail to resume discussions on an international treaty. ban on killer robots. In March last year, after a new failure in the discussions under the Convention, Belgium signed with 22 other states a joint declaration emphasizing the urgent need for rules and restrictions to guarantee the participation and monitoring of sufficient human resources in relation to the use of force.

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However, at the same time, the Belgian government’s stance has been described as more wait-and-see, with the executive now demanding prior consultations on the issue of killer robots within NATO. Without being able to say with certainty what explains this, it is clear that the war in Ukraine has overshadowed concerns related to arms control. However, rather than fueling militaristic ambitions, this conflict should rather remind us of the importance of this control. The goal of a government agreement to conclude an international ban on autonomous weapons remains the same, if not more important, than before. Technological evolution holds back diplomacy. Hurry.

Today, our country should consider participating in the negotiation process for a new treaty to ban killer robots and regulate other autonomous weapons systems. The proposal for a parliamentary resolution calls on the government to play an active role in this direction. Also under consideration is a bill to ban killer robots in Belgium. A national ban would confirm the pioneering role that Belgium has already played in the past by banning weapons that cause undue human suffering. This is an opportunity that our country should seize!

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