Is Africa ready for weapons that call their own shots?

2019-08-28

Robotic weapons that once activated can select and attack targets without any further human intervention are being developed by the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Israel. Often listed as part of the ‘third revolution’ in warfare, after conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) will be unpredictable on the battlefield.

As a result they will be able to target civilians and other protected people in violation of international humanitarian law. Even if they are used in law enforcement situations or during peace time, it is unlikely that they will comply with international human rights law. More importantly, if these weapons violate these important laws, there will be an accountability or responsibility gap.

More than 70 countries gathered in Geneva this month for the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) to discuss the imminent threat posed by these weapons. Twenty nine states, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, scholars and many tech workers have called for their ban.

Likewise, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has spoken out strongly against them. He noted that ‘machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law’.

The threat of lethal automated weapons to African peace and security is real

Although unconvincing, other participants in the UN GGE argue that lethal automated weapons may save lives since, unlike humans, they don’t act out of prejudice. They wouldn’t seek revenge in a way that humans would.

Yet in the fields of big data and artificial intelligence on which LAWS rely, it has already been proven that prejudices exist. The power of artificial intelligence is ‘so incredible, it will change society in some very deep ways, some ways will be good and some will be bad’, said billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at the 2019 Human-Centred Artificial Intelligence Symposium at Stanford University. ‘The world hasn't had that many technologies that are both promising and dangerous – you know, we had nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.’

And in a world where LAWS are easily accessible, Africa is likely to be the most affected by such weapons. Africa is prone to conflict – some conflicts of which are fuelled by access to weapons coming from western countries.

According to an Institute for Security Studies report, eight of the 15 UN peacekeeping missions are deployed in Africa. This shows how fragile the continent is compared to the rest of the world. This kind of fragility portends a number of challenges, particularly for civilian disarmament, the report says.

Lethal automated weapons will be able to target civilians in violation of international humanitarian law

Once lethal automated weapons are developed, they will undoubtedly proliferate. The history and experience with small arms and light weapons used by African states makes it likely that LAWS will be diverted to non-state armed groups, with no regard for the laws of war. Once this happens, it would become difficult, if not impossible, to regulate their use in Africa.

The 2019 Global Peace Index notes that the Middle East and certain parts of Africa remain the world’s least peaceful regions worldwide. Africa is home to four of the 10 least peaceful countries in the world, with no country from the region ranked higher than 30th on the index.

Allowing the development of LAWS would have far-reaching repercussions for the continent. African states must therefore urgently work together to launch negotiations on a legally binding treaty prohibiting the development and deployment of these weapons.

Yet, notwithstanding the threats posed by lethal automated weapons to the continent, participation of African states in the UN GGE have been very poor over the years. At the UN GGE this month, only four African states (Algeria, South Africa, Egypt and Uganda) participated.

Prejudices exist in the fields of big data and artificial intelligence

Of these four, only two made submissions. In its intervention, South Africa emphasised the importance of ethics when considering the regulation of LAWS. Ethics are important to Africans as they include notions of ubuntu (compassion or humanity) or human dignity. These weapons must be under human control since human dignity requires that the decision to use force against fellow humans be made by humans, not machines.

In the same way that African states strongly advocated for the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in the Arms Trade Treaty, the continent’s nations must urgently take the lead and garner support for a legally binding instrument on LAWS. This is an opportunity for African states to be preventive rather than reactive in the disarmament arena.

The threat of lethal automated weapons to African peace and security is real and a clear way forward is required. The current participation of African states in the UN international debate on these weapons is not impressive.

In the lead-up to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Meeting of the High Contracting Parties from 13 to 15 November 2019 in Geneva, there needs to be a mind shift from reaction to instilling preventive measures. This must be not only from the African diplomatic community, but also from stakeholders in Africa such as civil society organisations, the private sector and the media, who need to be more proactive.

Gugu Dube, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria

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