How Belgium can stop killer robots

This Tuesday, in the Defense Committee, questions relating to killer robots will be put to the competent Minister. Belgium must initiate the international fight against the use of autonomous weapons, believe the authors of this carte blanche.


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En Belgium, two important initiatives are pending in the House of Representatives: a motion for a resolution and a bill on the banning of killer robots. These initiatives should inspire our parliamentarians to promote a world where technology is used to promote peace and justice, not to kill.

Unfavorable public opinion

Killer robots are lethal weapon systems with strong artificial intelligence that makes them capable of detecting, identifying, selecting and attacking a target completely autonomously, that is, without any human control. Although these weapons are not yet fully exploited, several international experts in robotics and artificial intelligence warn of the dangers of their development. Indeed, entrusting to an algorithm – which can potentially translate the cognitive biases of its designers and integrate racial, social or gender understandings tinged with prejudices and other constructed representations of the threat to be eradicated – the use of (lethal) force on the basis of information collected by sensors carries a risk of further dehumanization by reducing people to a simple combination of ones and zeros.

Furthermore, the loss of human control over the exercise of violence confronts us with fundamental questions. Will international law always be respected? Who will be called to account if things go wrong: the designer of the system, the structure that ordered it, the one that deployed it? How to do justice to potential complainants?

In Ukraine, reports of the use of weapon systems that may 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 also risk causing dangerous destabilization in Belgium. Moreover, in the context of a survey carried out in 2020, 66% of Belgians are calling for the banning of killer robots.

A missed opportunity

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

The results of the Review Conference reflect the blocking of a handful of States, including the United States and Russia, but not the will of the vast majority of them, of civil society or of public opinion. international public. After eight years of discussions, this failure shows that a process outside the Convention is now likely, as was already the case for anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions. More so, it seems to be the only way to finally make real progress.

What can Belgium do?

Although Belgium has spared no effort on the international scene, in particular by chairing in 2021 the Group of governmental experts responsible for finding solutions within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Belgian diplomacy is unfortunately not failed to relaunch discussions on an international treaty banning killer robots. Last March, after a new failure of the discussions within the framework of the Convention, Belgium signed with 22 other States a joint declaration which emphasizes the urgent need for rules and limits in order to guarantee a participation and monitoring sufficient human resources on the use of force.

Nevertheless, at the same time, the position of the Belgian government has been profiled as more wait-and-see, and the executive now wants prior consultation on the issue of killer robots within NATO. Without being able to say with certainty that this explains it, it is clear that the war in Ukraine has marginalized concerns related to arms control. However, instead of feeding militaristic ambitions, this conflict should rather remind us of the importance of this control. The purpose of the government agreement to negotiate an international ban on autonomous weapons is still as, if not more, important than before. Technological evolution constrains diplomacy. Hurry up.

Today, our country must pursue the possibility of participating in a new treaty negotiation process to ban killer robots and regulate other autonomous weapons systems. The motion for a parliamentary resolution calls on the government to play an active role in this direction. A bill to ban killer robots in Belgium is also on the table. A national ban would confirm the pioneering role that Belgium has already played in the past by banning weapons that cause excessive human suffering. This is an opportunity that our country must seize!

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How Belgium can stop killer robots

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