Who wants to ban killer robots?

Despite much talk about a killer robots, few states support a ban. In a new article, Ondřej Rosendorf shows that states lacking capacities to pursue killer robots are most in favour of a ban in addition to states with a strong humanitarian orientation.

The advent of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), also known as “killer robots,” presents one of the most significant developments in current military affairs. The possibility of delegating decisions to use force to machines promises to revolutionize warfare, yet, it also raises serious ethical, legal, and security challenges.

Since 2012, a group of NGOs organized under the umbrella of “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (CSKR) has been advocating for a preventive prohibition of these systems. Much like previous humanitarian disarmament campaigns against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and blinding lasers, the principal justification for the ban on LAWS lies in the potentially adverse impact of their use for the protection of civilians during times of war.

National delegations are currently discussing LAWS in the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which allows imposing prohibitions or restrictions on weapons deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

While the initial focus of the GGE was open-ended, discussions quickly gravitated to possible regulatory options, including moratoria, codes of conduct, or a positive obligation to maintain “meaningful human control” over weapon systems. Partly due to active advocacy efforts of the CSKR, the call for a preventive prohibition received the most attention, even though the full potential of the technology is unknown, and there is no universally accepted definition of LAWS.

To date, some thirty countries, including Austria and members of the Global South, have aligned themselves with the view of the CSKR, demanding a ban to address the potentially adverse humanitarian implications of weapon autonomy. The composition of this group is peculiar at first glance since – except for Austria – it does not include any Wester-liberal democracies, traditionally associated with the advocacy of humanitarian norms.

Why have the former leaders of campaigns against anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, such as Canada and Norway, not (yet) expressed their support for the call to prohibit LAWS when their potential use threatens to violate fundamental humanitarian norms? Which countries, if not Western-liberal democracies, are likely to join the group of ban supporters?

The main problem with enlisting additional supporters for CSKR’s cause relates to states’ perceptions of the costs and benefits from agreeing to the prospective prohibition and, effectively, foregoing military innovation in LAWS.

For laggards in technological research and development, a total ban presents an intuitively attractive option because it would preclude the widening of the gap in capabilities vis-à-vis those at the frontier of military innovation. They would benefit from prohibition while giving up little to nothing in return (at least in the short term). Conversely, those capable and interested in exploring military applications of autonomy would pay a disproportionately higher price from foregoing the innovation relative to laggards.

To identify the likely and unlikely supporters of the ban, it is therefore imperative to understand the factors that might motivate states to develop or acquire LAWS in the first place.

  • First and foremost, financial and technological capacities constrain states’ innovative potential. In the immediate future, only the most technologically advanced countries would be able to leverage the potential of weapon autonomy effectively.
  • Second, security threats might motivate states to pursue LAWS to gain an advantage over adversaries. Trends in the use of weapon autonomy indicate that these systems could be especially useful for border protection purposes or counterterrorism operations.
  • Third, the nature of domestic-political structures might generate interest in LAWS. Casualty-averse democracies, and control-seeking autocracies, in particular, could derive specific benefits from weapon autonomy. Yet, certain normative beliefs might also dissuade countries from exploring these benefits.

Accordingly, when we look at the group of ban supporters, what characterizes these states is an interplay of lacking capacities and incentives to pursue innovation in LAWS, on the one hand, combined with stronger humanitarian orientation, on the other hand. An exemplary ban supporter is a country with limited financial and technological capacity, neither established democracy nor autocracy, which actively advocates for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, with deep socialization within the existing arms control and disarmament regimes.

The reluctance of Western-liberal democracies and many other states to endorse the ban partly lies in the potential for leveraging the benefits of LAWS. This does not necessarily mean they are currently developing these systems. However, the increased receptiveness towards such benefits dissuades countries from committing to a preventive prohibition.

The GGE process will continue until the next Review Conference of the CCW in December 2021, but its outcome remains uncertain at this point. To increase their chances for success, campaigners must expand their supporter base exponentially. The easiest way forward would be to focus on countries from the Global South, rather than attempting to enlist the one “champion state” from among Western-liberal democracies.

Although the unregulated development and use of LAWS are not inevitable, the feasibility of preventive prohibition seems dubious if the CSKR expects militarily significant states to accede. If a regulatory framework is to be effective, it must be perceived as fair by all parties. Reaching agreement on the lowest common denominator – potentially a political declaration – constitutes a more realistic (and much needed) outcome in the immediate future.

Ondřej Rosendorf works at the Institue of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czechia. He is the author of “Predictors of support for a ban on killer robots: Preventive arms control as an anticipatory response to military innovation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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