As if small states, with limited financial and human resources to safeguard their societies, do not confront enough grave challenges, along comes the phenomenon of “autonomous weapons” – probably the most frightening technological development that has yet been created.
Why should small states be concerned? They should already be deeply troubled by the increase in violence in their societies, including the escalation of homicides, caused by the expanded number of conventional weapons being brought into their territories by organized criminals.
There is now hardly any country that is not experiencing gangs, gang violence, armed robberies, rapes, drive-by shootings and murder. In almost every case, illegal guns are used.
Autonomous weapons in the hands of organized criminals would raise the problem of murders, assassinations, and even targeted destruction to new and frightening heights. For instance, it is now possible to enter facial recognition into a drone equipped to shoot to kill. The drone can then sift images of persons over whom it flies, select a body it believes matches the face, and shoot the person, flying away undetected.
These autonomous weapons are not restricted to drones. They come in a variety of forms including robots, programmed for warfare. They can also be devices which are planted in built up areas, for instance, and programmed to detonate from great distances.
Imagining the use to which such autonomous weapons could be put by criminals, or even by mentally troubled persons, should terrify everyone, especially law enforcement agencies such as the Police, and agencies concerned with fighting drug trafficking, people trafficking and other forms of crime.
All this is good reason why small states in the Caribbean and everywhere should immediately join the growing international movement to prohibit and regulate autonomous weapons systems.
But, given their own peculiar circumstances of small size, limited human and financial resources, escalating crime and the fearful prospect of autonomous weapons in the hands of criminals, small states should consider banning such weapons now, even ahead of any international convention which will take years to negotiate and agree, and which, like many other treaties, would be unlikely to take account of the circumstances of small states.
The government of Costa Rica, in Central America, should be congratulated for the leadership it is providing in alerting nations and their law enforcement agencies to the real and present danger of autonomous weapons. Last February, the government of Costa Rica and a local non-governmental organization, convened a Conference which was attended by many countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as officials from 13 other nations, including France, Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, and the United States.
From this conference, a Communiqué was issued, calling for collaboration to promote the urgent negotiation of an international legally binding instrument, with prohibitions and regulations governing autonomous weapons, and which would take account of International Humanitarian Law, and ethical perspectives, as well as the prevention of the social and humanitarian impact that autonomy in weapons systems entail.
The adoption of this Communiqué was an important first step, but it lacked sufficient high-level political participation. Consequently, the political decision makers and legislators are not yet adequately informed of the enormous dangers posed by autonomous weapons. In this regard, the media has a role to play in researching, analyzing and reporting on the urgency of this issue, helping to inform decision makers and the general public in their countries.
Several governments, around the world, are heavily investing in the military applications of autonomous weapons, which are part of the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Among these countries are China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Indeed, weapons systems with autonomous functions are already being used in Ukraine and other conflicts.
These countries are unlikely to stop their use of these weapons, and like most other weapons developed for military use, they will be bought and abused by criminals and others for criminal purposes, beyond the capacity of law enforcement agencies.
So far, the pleas of many significant international figures to legislate against these weapons have been ignored. Among these persons are the Pope; Ban-Ki-Moon, the former UN Secretary-General, and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.
Perhaps the pre-eminent group to which the world should be listening is a group of engineers, AI and robotics experts, and other scientists and researchers from thirty-seven countries. They have issued the “Scientists’ Call to Ban Autonomous Lethal Robots”, in which they insist that “decisions about the application of violent force must not be delegated to machines.”
Groups arguing for legally binding instruments to maintain human control over these weapons, have stressed that “a fundamental condition of international humanitarian law, requires that some person must be held responsible for civilian deaths. Any weapon or other means of war that makes it impossible to identify responsibility for the casualties it causes does not meet the requirements of jus in bello (the right conduct in war) and, therefore, should not be employed in war.”
If, in war, there is a limitation on accountability and who could be brought to justice, in the day to day lives of ordinary citizens, the use of such weapons to kill or destroy, is even worse. Anonymity of the person, responsible for death or destruction though the use of autonomous weapons, could put them beyond the reach of the justice system and fling the doors wide open to anarchy.
Nearly 70 countries now openly support a new legal framework to govern and regulate autonomy in weapons systems. But waiting for international treaties to be negotiated does not stop small states from acting within their own jurisdictions to adopt laws, prohibiting the importation and use of autonomous weapons and applying stiff penalties for violations.
The issue is real, and it is now.
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(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)