REGULATING AUTONOMOUS WEAPONS
Ceasefire.ca readers will be familiar with our concern over the implications of autonomous weapons — popularly known as “killer robots” — weapons that are capable of
defining, assessing and targeting their own perceived threats and thus [are] in a position to start their own war.
The latest action in a long-running international effort to effectively address this problem is a joint call by the United Nations Secretary-General and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross for states to
establish specific prohibitions and restrictions on autonomous weapon systems, to shield present and future generations from the consequences of their use. In the current security landscape, setting clear international red lines will benefit all States.
In their view, and we strongly agree, weapons systems that select targets and apply force without human intervention
should be prohibited by international law.
Artificial Intelligence technologies exacerbate the risks
Noting that scientists and industry leaders themselves “have also been sounding the alarm,” the joint call highlights the risks from new and emerging technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence technologies that could be integrated into autonomous weapons:
If we are to harness new technologies for the good of humanity, we must first address the most urgent risks and avoid irreparable consequences.
This, in turn, means prohibiting autonomous weapon systems which function in such a way that their effects cannot be predicted:
For example, allowing autonomous weapons to be controlled by machine learning algorithms — fundamentally unpredictable software which writes itself — is an unacceptably dangerous proposition.
Other types of autonomous weapons must be fully compliant with international law
“Clear restrictions” are needed for all other types of autonomous weapons to ensure compliance with international law and ethical acceptability:
These include limiting where, when and for how long they are used, the types of targets they strike and the scale of force used, as well as ensuring the ability for effective human supervision, and timely intervention and deactivation.
It is not too late to take action
Citing “more than a decade of discussions” within the United Nations, including in the Human Rights Council, under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and at the UN General Assembly, the joint statement calls on States to
build on this groundwork, and come together constructively to negotiate new rules that address the tangible threats posed by these weapon technologies.
Clarity and agreement needed on application of international law rules to autonomous weapons
The joint call makes clear that international law, particularly international humanitarian law, already prohibits certain weapons and sets general restrictions on the use of others.
However, in their considered view,
without a specific international agreement governing autonomous weapon systems, States can hold different views about how these general rules apply.
Accordingly, the UN Secretary-General and the ICRC President
call on world leaders to launch negotiations of a new legally binding instrument to set clear prohibitions and restrictions on autonomous weapon systems and to conclude such negotiations by 2026. We urge Members States to take decisive action now to protect humanity.
On the need for greater public awareness and the role of scientists to that end, see The weaponization of artificial intelligence: What the public needs to be aware of (Birgitta Dresp-Langley, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, March 2023).
NOTABLE EVENTS: MESF 2023
As part of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy’s 3rd Annual Middle East Strategy Forum (MESF 2023), held on 26 September 2023, RI President Peggy Mason moderated a panel on “The Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime in the Middle East: Iran and Beyond”.
Chen Zak Kane, Director of the Middle East Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute for International Studies
Farzan Sabet, Research Associate of the Sanction and Sustainable Peace Hub at the Geneva Graduate Institute; previously a Researcher in the Middle East WMD-Free Zone Project at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research
Panelists appearing virtually:
Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association
Henry Rome, Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Questions for the panelists included:
- What are the proliferation implications of Saudi Arabia’s bid for a civilian nuclear power programme that would include access to uranium enrichment technology — which can be used to produce reactor fuel and weapons-grade uranium?
- What is the future of the long-reiterated Arab state goal of a Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction?
- Is the apparent recent “understanding” reached between the USA and Iran, whereby the two sides indirectly agreed on a prisoner exchange deal and Iranian de-escalation of its uranium enrichment programme, a step toward the USA reaching a new form of nuclear agreement with Iran?
The backdrop for this panel was widespread reporting that the Biden administration is pursuing a “grand bargain” in the Middle East that includes normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
According to multiple reports:
A key concession being sought by Saudi Arabia in this [normalization] negotiation is access to uranium enrichment technology …
During the discussions, RI President Peggy Mason quoted this observation by a nuclear expert writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
With its constant threat of wars, the Middle East is no place for nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors in the region have been targeted in aerial attacks a dozen times. The safety issues that followed the capture by the Russians of the Zaporizhzhia power reactors in Ukraine should teach us something, too. Nuclear reactors do not belong in regions of potential conflict.
For the full panel discussion on this very timely subject with significant implications for international peace and security, click on the arrow below.
In today’s update we are going to focus in some detail on several of this week’s Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs “Russia Matters” commentaries because, in our view, they signal a growing realization that diplomacy is now necessary to forestall catastrophic disaster in Ukraine.
October 3 update: Persistent stalemate. US short-term spending bill passed without Ukraine funding, but several months of short-term aid remains available. Net territorial change in the past month: Ukraine +7 square miles.
In the words of Stephen Wertheim in a Guardian article discussed further on,
Russia has actually gained more territory in this calendar year than Ukraine has, despite the immense quantity of advanced weaponry that the US and Europe have supplied to Ukrainian forces.
From “4 Things to Know”:
Russia’s use of Chinese currency for its imports has increased almost 21-fold, according to new study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). By the end of 2022, 20% of Russia’s imports were invoiced in yuan—up from 3% a year previously, FT reported, citing the new study. Russia’s rising trade in yuan may end up undermining the U.S. dollar, according to the study, as cited by Bloomberg.
Here is the actual quote from the EBRD study summary:
Thus while dominance of the US dollar (USD) makes international sanctions more effective, as payments denominated in USD need to be cleared through the US banking system, economic sanctions may encourage a shift away from USD as a vehicle currency thus eroding the USD dominance.
Here is the concluding sentence of the EBRD Report:
It [this analysis] also illustrates a broader point: rising geopolitical tensions in general, and the use of trade sanctions in particular, may reduce the attractiveness of the use of US dollar as a vehicle currency in international trade and facilitate the rise of new international currencies as well as greater use of producer or importer currency to settle trades. This, in turn, might lead to a greater fragmentation of global payment systems.
From “7 Ideas to Explore”:
The U.S. and its allies should avoid “optimism in regard to nuclear risk” emanating from “Russian nuclear coercive diplomacy,” according to Stephen Cimbala of Penn State University and Lawrence Korb of Georgetown.
According to Russia Matters, the Cimbala/Korb commentary
appeared after the publication of multiple reports in Western media warning that Russia has increased construction on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, which was one of the USSR’s nuclear weapons testing locations.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Cimbala and Korb set out three concerns about such optimism, and the “too abrupt dismissal” of the possibility of Russian escalation to nuclear weapons use, factors which underpin the current “maximalist military strategy” being pursued by Ukraine and the US/NATO:
First, the United States and NATO cannot and should not assume that Russian reasoning about nuclear deterrence and escalation will follow a logic similar to that of their Western counterparts.
Second, escalation need not be the outcome of deliberate forethought: Inadvertent escalation could lead to a crossing of the nuclear threshold under circumstances that were not planned for or foreseen.
Cimbala and Korb introduce the third concern by reminding us that
no one should underestimate what Ukraine and NATO have already accomplished in this war, both in terms of strategy and in policy—significant accomplishments won without provoking nuclear escalation.
They then elaborate on the importance of the third factor in reconsidering current Ukrainian and Western war strategy:
A third factor weighing against demands for an absolute Ukrainian military victory lies in the recognition that Russia has already suffered a strategic political defeat. Instead of dividing and weakening NATO, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had the opposite effect.
In their view:
in a best case for Russia in Ukraine, it will have to settle for a negotiated cease fire and a peace agreement that leaves it with less territory in Ukraine than it has occupied—or, even worse, to continue with an extended war that drains its economic resources and military power.
The authors, having seemingly clearly made the case for a negotiated settlement, pull their punches in their somewhat schizophrenic conclusion:
Russian nuclear threats should not paralyze Ukrainian or NATO determination to persevere in the conventional war, which has existential stakes for Western democracy.
But Western leaders should also remember that war is the least predictable of human activities, and nuclear war has unacceptable and irreversible consequences for all of humanity.
For the full article, see Putin’s “bluff”: a cautionary note about underestimating the possibility of nuclear escalation in Ukraine” (Stephen J. Cimbala & Lawrence J. Korb, thebulletin.org, 2 October 2023).
The fourth “Idea to Explore” in this week’s Russia Matters faces more squarely the need for Ukraine to change its strategy.
It begins with a partial quote from Niall Ferguson’s non-paywalled Bloomberg article entitled The West’s Patience is Running Shorter than Ukraine’s War (24 September 2023), which we include in its entirety:
In principle, we should all want Ukraine to win this war and regain all the territory seized by Russia since 2014. In practice, that outcome will not be attainable in the absence of a collapse of either the Russian government or the Russian army’s morale, neither of which seems imminent. Rather than risk a protracted war with the added danger of waning Western support, Ukraine needs to lock in what it has already achieved.
Ferguson uses the Korean Armistice as a possible model for Ukraine without going into any detail about negotiations to that end. It falls to Stephen Wertheim in a 5 October 2023 Guardian article to move the diplomacy discussion further forward.
Unachievable Western war aims require a change in strategy
Stephen Wertheim is a Senior Fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and his article is entitled The Ukraine war is in a new phase. Biden must rethink the US position.
The under banner of that article reads:
Unfortunately for the president, supporting Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’, and mostly without conditions, has reached its limits
After noting, as we did earlier, that Russia has actually gained more territory in this calendar year than Ukraine has, despite the immense quantity of advanced weaponry that the US and Europe have supplied to Ukrainian forces, he further observes:
The problem isn’t that arguments for helping Ukraine have lacked passion or that skeptics have been treated too kindly. It is that the current aims may be unachievable….
The US needs to pursue diplomacy to end the war as vigorously as it arms Ukraine
In Wertheim’s view, to sustain the support of Americans, Biden needs to put forward a better strategy, starting with more defined and attainable goals that inspire confidence.
Further, the Biden administration should pursue ending the war — through diplomatic steps to restart talks — as vigorously as it arms Ukraine.
Next Wertheim acknowledges that “for now, neither Kyiv nor Moscow is willing to stop fighting…”.
But he then goes on to make the essential point, consistently ignored in the “forever war” commentaries:
but conditions may never become ripe [for diplomacy] unless the parties communicate in advance with US encouragement and participation. The US is uniquely capable of bringing the parties together.
It has yet to try in earnest.
Although the effort would almost certainly not yield rapid and dramatic results, it would show that Biden is serious about bringing the conflict to a close and is doing his utmost to avoid the escalation risks and financial costs of a long war.
Against the backdrop of a strengthened and expanded NATO, a negotiated settlement that leaves Russia with less territory in Ukraine than it has occupied is a further strategic defeat and a far better outcome for Ukraine than fighting on at such a terrible, terrible cost for maximalist military objectives that simply cannot be achieved and which put at risk military gains to date.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND CITIZEN ACTION
The latest issue of the Progressive Magazine has a feature commentary entitled: Triage and Transformation Strategies for the Climate Emergency (David Helvarg, progressive.org, 2 October 2023).
The author begins with this startling observation:
We had long thought of climate change as being like a thermostat happening gradually over centuries, but more recent science shows it’s more like a light switch that can change everything in a few decades.
The first part of the article does not shy away from the dire climate crisis in which we now find ourselves, and the decades of inaction, grudging steps forward, and constant back-sliding, that has brought us to where we are today.
Despite a few outspoken voices today, such as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and his recent warning of “global boiling,” our political leaders still haven’t lived up to their 2015 Paris climate accord commitment to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a target the world is expected to blow through in the next decade.
However, having painted this grim but entirely accurate picture, the bulk of the commentary focuses on what “advocates for actual climate solutions” are doing:
practic[ing] triage—saving what we can—… [while also] ensur[ing] that climate adaptation strategies… don’t become a substitute for rapidly quitting fossil fuels…
In addition to the role of governments, like that of California, in incentivizing innovation in energy markets, Helvarg has many examples of citizen engagement making a real difference.
younger activists and emerging leaders… [are] suing oil companies and the governments that support them and leading sit-ins, student strikes, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns, while also emphasizing the essential links between the environment, racial equity, and a just economy.
Helvarg also reminds us of this astonishing fact:
Unfortunately, the most comprehensive twenty-year climate plan remains a work of fiction—2020’s The Ministry for the Future, a novel by utopian science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.
Could a ‘carbon coin’ save the planet?
Robinson, in an interview, recently addressed the fundamental question of how to pay for decarbonization efforts despite opposition from fossil fuel cartels, through a new “carbon coin” currency.
This idea was explored in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Could a ‘Carbon Coin’ Save the Planet? (Scott Patterson, 8 March 2022), the under banner of which read:
Australian civil engineer Delton Chen explains his idea for a new currency, portrayed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate-catastrophe novel
For non-subscribers to the Wall Street Journal, Delton Chen explains the carbon coin HERE.
CANADA, ISRAEL AND PALESTINE: YOUR VOICE MATTERS
The Government of Canada is carrying out a “Consultation on origin labelling of imported foods from a contested territory.”
Feedback can be emailed to email@example.com with “Origin Labelling Consultation” in the subject line.
RI President Peggy Mason submitted a letter which is available HERE IN PDF FORMAT and included below in its entirety:
From: Peggy Mason
Sent: October 5, 2023 2:23 PM
Subject: Origin Labelling Consultation
Dear Sir or Madam:
I strongly believe that Canadian labelling should be accurate and in accordance with international law. A very clear example would be the Palestinian Occupied Territories which are the subject of a binding UN Security Council resolution requiring goods from those territories to be identified as such, and not as products of Israel.
I quote two relevant paragraphs from UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of 23 Dec 2016:
- Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace….
- Calls upon all States, bearing in mind paragraph 1 of this resolution, to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967;
As noted above, this Security Council resolution is binding on all UN member states. Therefore, it should be clear that this is not properly a matter for public consultation. It is tantamount to consulting the public on whether Canada should follow — or breach — international law and its binding obligations thereunder in its labelling of goods from overseas.
I would add one further point regarding your terminology of “imported foods from a contested territory”. While Israel may contest this territory, its status under international law is absolutely clear, as paragraph 1 above states and can only be changed through negotiation and agreement of the parties.
So the bottom line is that Canada’s labelling policy on all imported goods should fully conform with international law and our obligations thereunder.
Peggy Mason (Former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN)
President/ Présidente, L’Institut Rideau Institute
Addendum – 8 Oct 2023
Since this post was originally published, Hamas has launched attacks on Israel and, in response, Israel has declared it is “at war. ” For more on the Palestinian “right to resist” under international law, click HERE.
Photo credit: Wikipedia (President Biden and GCC leaders)
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