The Government will push for an international ban on fully autonomous weapons, or killer robots, that use artificial intelligence to target and kill people without any human decision-making.
New Zealand has for decades advocated for disarmament in international forums, after declaring the country a nuclear-free zone in the 1980s. Autonomous weapons are seen as a new frontier in the arms race between major military powers.
Disarmament Minister Phil Twyford on Tuesday said the Government had decided to take a “tough and uncompromising” stance on autonomous weapons, and seek a ban of fully autonomous weapons on the international stage.
He said there was a realistic prospect that large-scale wars could soon be waged by killer robots.
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“There’s a fundamental ethical objection to delegating to machines the decision to take a human life. When a machine is activated and can then identify and engage a human target, without any human intervention in that decision-making chain, that is, I think, profoundly concerning.
“Many people, and I think New Zealand is in this camp, seriously question whether it’s possible for autonomous weapon systems to comply with the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law – the rules around protecting civilians, of military action being proportionate, accountability for one’s actions in the battlefield.
“There’s a third objection … Mass-produced killer robots in the battlefield will lower the threshold for war. Without human beings in the decision-making chain, controlling these things, it raises the fearful possibility of warfare by robots on a massive scale.”
The policy, which had been signed off by Cabinet and was supported by the Defence Force and Ministry of Defence among other government agencies, was not for an outright ban on all autonomous functions in weaponry.
“There’s a lot of shades of grey here about levels of control and levels of human intervention … but I’m hopeful that as we work through these issues, get down to the detail through international negotiations and work with both military and experts from the tech industry, that we will all be able to make good international law to deal with this.”
Twyford said the policy would “likely” become domestic law in the future – New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance has been backed by law which bans any country bringing nuclear devices into the country, including friendly militaries.
He said he did not expect New Zealand’s position to have an adverse effect on its relationship with the major military powers, including the United States.
“The world’s major military powers, including the US, and Russia, China, and others, like India, are working very hard to gain the military advantage from these fully autonomous weapon systems, and we’re taking a very different position on this … but we’re used to that.
“It’s no surprise to any of the great military powers that New Zealand takes a pretty tough and uncompromising approach on disarmament and peace.”
Other countries including Austria, Ireland, Mexico and Chile were supportive of a ban on autonomous weapons. Twyford has spoken to his counterparts in these countries, and New Zealand officials were collaborating with other officials at a review conference of the United Nations’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
“We’re pushing hard and on the basis of our policy now I get to really be advocating clearly for new legally binding rules,” he said.
Green Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said it was a “huge relief” that the Government had decided to seek an international ban on killer robots, after appearing hesitant last term.
“New Zealand doesn’t actually have to wait for international consensus on this – we know that those types of processes take years – we could lead by example and pass domestic law banning autonomous weapons,” she said.
“What we actually want as all of our friends and allies to pass domestic law, which is what makes international law effective, so we could actually lead by example and do that … and adding that to our glowing record on nuclear weapons.”
Human Rights Watch arms advocacy director Mary Wareham said New Zealand was demonstrating “high-level” support for international law on killer robots.
But diplomats needed to urgently move the effort away from the CCW and either create a standalone treaty or head to the United Nations General Assembly, she said.
“Human Rights Watch encourages New Zealand and other states to be explicit in promoting the goal of a legally binding instrument to ban and limit autonomous weapons systems.”