By Sir Ronald Sanders
Autonomous weapons pose a clear and present danger to the Caribbean. Action to ban them should be seriously considered now.
This is one of four recommendations that I made in an address to a conference on September 5, organised by the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security on “The Human Impacts of Autonomous Weapons”. This article is a shortened version of my address to law enforcement officers, lawyers and diplomats.
Autonomous weapons are weapon systems that can identify, target, and eliminate a person, a group of persons or an area without human intervention. Unlike remotely piloted drones or other systems that require a human to make the final decision to engage a target, autonomous weapons can carry out these actions on their own once they are activated.
So, why should the Caribbean region be alarmed at this phenomenon? There are several reasons. Our communities are already under stress due to increasing crime and violence. The illegal firearms that contribute to violent crime and homicides are a precursor to a more profound threat.
Can you imagine the impact of autonomous weapons being added to the arsenal of weapons that are now deployed in criminal activity? Consider a drone, meticulously programmed with facial recognition technology, set to target an individual. It scans, identifies, and eliminates its target all while operating undetected.
Autonomous weapons are diverse. They consist not only of drones but also of covert city devices and lethal robots. They can be precise, targeting key figures such as political leaders, judges, law enforcement officers -or anyone who opposes those who benefit from drug trafficking or other criminal activity.
Beyond individuals, our critical infrastructure is also at risk including energy facilities that provide electricity to towns and cities, to ports, and to water supplies.
The Global Context
There is an increasing chorus within the international community advocating for a robust treaty to govern these autonomous weapons. Prominent international figures, including the Pope, and the UN Secretary General António Guterres, have voiced their concerns.
Last October in the First Committee of the 77th United Nations General Assembly, a joint statement was issued, drawing grave concerns about lethal autonomous weapons systems.
The statement said, among other things: “… the introduction of new technological applications, such as those related to autonomy in weapon systems, also raise serious concerns from humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspectives. We therefore see an urgent need for the international community to further their understanding and address these risks and challenges by adopting appropriate rules and measures, such as principles, good practices, limitations and constraints”.
Also, on July 20 this year, under the theme of “A new Agenda for Peace”, the UN Secretary-General recommended that all countries should “conclude, by 2026, a legally binding instrument to prohibit lethal autonomous weapon systems that function without human control or oversight.” The government of Costa Rica has also been proactive in galvanizing nations to address this worrisome issue.
The calls for international cooperation to curb autonomous weapons is a crucial step, but not all governments in the international community support this position. Indeed, some of them, which are already extensively using drones and other lethal machines in war-torn areas and for targeting enemies, are resisting any binding treaties that limit their use of autonomous weapons. The Stop Killer Robots Movement has pointed out that this year’s meeting of the group of governmental experts on autonomous weapons systems, from May 15 to 19, ended without substantive progress.
Big countries that see benefits in these weapons are resisting strict rules. These nations are investing heavily in military applications of autonomous weapons, weaving them into the fabric of their defence strategies. They argue that these weapons can reduce human casualties in conflict or be more precise in targeting.
Anyone who doubts the capacity of these weapons, need only look at television coverage of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to see the death and destruction they inflict.
Small States vulnerability and Caribbean unity
How long before these weapons find their way into the wrong hands, unchecked and unregulated? While international negotiations grind slowly forward, the Caribbean cannot afford the luxury of waiting. Caribbean vulnerabilities are immediate and tangible.
Caribbean borders are vast stretches of open sea, posing substantial challenges. Policing these expanses for inter-state trafficking, especially for high-tech, compact autonomous weaponry, is a daunting task. Moreover, Caribbean governments would be burdened with an unaffordable increase in costs.
For instance, law enforcement agencies would need to be revamped, counter-terrorism units established, and intelligence networks enhanced. Our vast maritime borders are conduits for trafficking, and the introduction of autonomous weapons into this mix is a nightmare scenario. Given the high stakes, Caribbean nations need not, and should not, wait for global consensus.
Their unity can be their strength. A regional approach, where Caribbean nations come together to enact stringent legislation, can set a powerful precedent.
Proposed regional actions
Here are four ideas for collective regional action.
First, an immediate step should be the introduction of laws strictly banning the importation of autonomous weapons. By ensuring they don’t enter our shores, we minimize the immediate threat.
Second, those found breaching these laws should face severe repercussions. From heavy fines to lengthy prison sentences, the message must be clear: the Caribbean will not tolerate the proliferation of these weapons.
Third, beyond possession and trafficking, the actual use of such weapons should carry even more substantial penalties, potentially maximum terms. This deterrence will underscore the gravity of the act.
And fourth, with the United Nations General Assembly gathering in October 2023, Caribbean States have an opportunity to take leadership in pushing for meaningful progress towards a new legally binding instrument. Every Caribbean leader at the General Assembly should include this call in their statements. Also, with the same vigour that small states at the UN fight against the existential threat of Climate Change, they should fight against the fatal threat of our police forces being overwhelmed by criminals armed with autonomous weapons.
To conclude, the Caribbean region, with its unique vulnerabilities, stands at a crossroads.
Our states can be proactive, adapting our laws and bolstering our defences, or we can risk being overpowered.
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