The Brief – The wording war against ‘killer robots’

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter

Killer robots may not speak Spanish as well as Terminator. But they could be as destructive as that famous killing machine with an Austrian accent in the not too distant future. Policy makers have been discussing how to avoid a rise of killer machines this week in Geneva.

Countries disagree on how to deal with Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), Terminator’s name in his birth certificate. At least 22 countries support a full ban on his kind. But more than a dozen countries, including, the US, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia and the UK may be developing them, warns Human Rights Watch.

As expected, the EU lived up to its motto in Geneva. But this time around, ‘united in diversity’ seems to work just fine. The bloc’s delegation defended its position that “humans should make the decisions with regard to the use of lethal force, exert sufficient control over lethal weapons systems they use, and remain accountable for decisions over life and death.”

While the Union still is debating a full-fledged ban, member states felt comfortable with this position despite their diverging views.

Austria is wary of the development of these weapons and warns of the risks of a killer-robot arms race.

On the opposite camp, France is not only against the ban, but says that the fact that self-learning machines can pick a target and shoot bullets, missiles or whatever they have at hand “does not necessarily entail a violation of international humanitarian law”.

But some voices disagree. Harvard Law School and Human Rights Watch argue that fully autonomous weapons do not comply with international humanitarian and human rights laws.

Human control should ensure that the principle of humanity plays a role when targets are selected and attacked, and to guarantee the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life.

If you are still unconvinced, look at the precedents of international bans on mines and biological and chemical weapons. So far, we’ve been decent enough to prohibit weapons which we don’t control.

Given the French position, Germany’s ambiguous stance and Europe’s usual handicap of speaking with one voice when we are still trying to decide what to say, the statement felt as a small victory for campaigners.

“It is a good start and the wording has strong elements,” said Daan Kayser, from PAX, co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

Kayser also welcomed Europe’s view that “multilateral diplomacy should not be outpaced by technological developments”.

Although fully autonomous killer robots don’t exist yet, the Geneva group needs to ensure that its recommendations are not obsolete before the ink is dry on them given the fast pace of technological progress.

As campaigners warn, the devil will be in the details. For example, when and how humans can take control of these weapons, or to broaden the scope to include not only lethal force.

The group of governments’ experts are expected to come up with recommendations in August. Countries could adopt later in autumn a negotiation mandate to draft legally binding rules next year.

Although the would-be assassins of killer robots want a full ban, it remains to be seen if the Europeans will lead the crusade and convince US, Russia, China & Co to control the development of deadly ‘intelligent’ machines.

For the EU, the most important thing is that the future regulation respects humanitarian law and other international rules, “including on the protection of the environment”.

Terminator may be back to fulfil this goal. Hasta la vista, baby.

The Roundup

By Alexandra Brzozowski

EU institutions have remained silent while the world got dangerously close to a conflict over Syria, with two EU members – Britain and France – getting ready to go to war.

Solidarity is not a one-way street, says Commissioner Günther Oettinger in an interview in which he discussed Europe’s dispute over refugees, the controversial judicial reforms in Poland and the election campaign in Bavaria.

Meanwhile, speculation over who will lead the EU from 2019 onwards is fueled by a brand-new survey providing some potential answers to the questions on everyone’s mind in the Brussels-bubble.

Two Caucasus countries simultaneously re-booted their leaders, with Armenia’s nomination of Sargsyan as prime minister only days after he stepped down as president, and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev securing his fourth consecutive term in an early snap election.

The Macedonian government survived a parliamentary vote of no-confidence brought by the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party over its handling of relations with Greece and Bulgaria.

To ensure security and stability of the Western Balkans, the EU should push back against Russian propaganda and engage in smarter outreach, writes Sir Graham Watson.

Under a new Commission proposal, it will be easier for consumers to seek damages from big companies as the EU clears the path for collective action lawsuits spanning multiple EU countries.

Child refugees entering the EU alone can apply for family reunification, even if they reach legal adulthood before the end of the process, the ECJ has ruled.

Energy transition in Europe is proceeding too slowly and Brussels is lacking ambition to fulfil the requirements of the Paris Agreement, a recent study suggests.

While packaging and waste in the EU doubled between 2004 and 2014, a new study found that plastic food packaging may be fueling, rather than combating, Europe’s food waste problem.

Look out for…

Eurozone commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis is in Berlin, to meet his German counterparts Olaf Scholz and Peter Altmaier.

Views are the author’s

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