German support builds for the ban

Following significant outreach by non-governmental organizations, German politicians and officials are beginning to commit to the call to ban fully autonomous weapons, known as vollständig autonome waffen or kampfroboter.  A poll of political parties participating in the 2013 federal election shows that Germany’s next government will likely engage actively on this issue in the years ahead, including at the international level.

In May 2013, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle told Die Weit that he shares the concern over autonomous weapons, stating, “I don’t want a situation where human decision-making is removed and delegated to machines.” In a letter to  Thomas Küchenmeister of Facing Finance, the German coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the foreign minister urged “respect and observance” of international humanitarian law in the development of autonomous weapons systems and stated that the government “is pursuing initiatives relating to this topic with great interest and is ready to move forward.”

That same month Germany decided to end production of the Euro Hawk armed drone that US defense contractor Northrop Grumman has developed and built for the German Ministry of Defence in cooperation with EADS Deutschland GmbH. After spending more than 500 million euro on system development and test flights, activists argue that the Euro Hawk “disaster” represents an opportunity for the German government to establish an informed policy on the use of both drones and armed robots that is “morally defensible.”

In the lead-up to the election held on 22 September 2013, all major political parties in Germany articulated policy positions in support of the call for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. According to Facing Finance, the parties were asked to comment on the following statement: The full automation of computer technology risks compromising the human decision-making process. Therefore it is imperative to halt the development of autonomous weapons systems before they gain disastrous momentum.

The parties responded as follows:

  • The two main conservative parties of the previous government—the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU)–stated, “even if drones remain, under German law, humans must be the decision-makers concerning their use.”
  • The Social Democratic Party (SPD) said it “fully agrees” with the statement and said “SPD wants to work for a ban of such weapons systems under international law as the international community did on landmines and cluster munitions.”
  • The Free Democratic Party (FDP) stated: “We strictly reject the automation of weapons. A person must always make the final decision on the use of weapons.”
  • The Left (Die Linke) party stated, “It threatens to fully automate warfare. Then military logic will dominate. They can and must be prevented by effective control mechanisms.”
  • Alliance 90/Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) stated “We are committed to outlawing of fully autonomous weapons systems. Weapons may not be out of [human] control.”
  • The Pirate Party stated, “Yes, exactly for the reasons mentioned, the research should also be banned. Until we refocus ourselves on humanity, can we stop the cycle of violence.”

Since late 2012, representatives from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have visited Berlin several times to promote the call for a ban on fully autonomous weapons:

  • In November 2012, during events to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams and Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch raised fully autonomous weapons with foreign minister Westerwelle, both publicly and in private. Williams suggested that Germany become be a leader in “preventative disarmament” by helping to ban killer robots.
  • In May 2013, about 50 participants including campaigners from Facing Finance, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control attended a seminar on “unmanned military systems” organized by Germany’s Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik or “SWP”) and the Federal Foreign Office and Federal Ministry of Defence. The conference organizer Marcel Dickow co-authored a SWP publication in December 2012 entitled, “Combat Drones – Killing Drones: A Plea against Flying Robots.”
  • In June 2013, Prof. Noel Sharkey spoke at the 14th Annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Boll Foundation on the topic of High-Tech Wars together with the security policy spokesperson for Alliance 90/The Greens Parliamentary Group, MP Omid Nouripour, who expressed support for a ban.
  • In September 2013, Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch debated Prof. Ron Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology at an evening event organized by the Centre of Ethical Education of the German Armed Forces (Zentrum für ethische Bildung in den Streitkräften or “Zebis”). At the event, a German Army representative said that the government currently has no development or production projects for autonomous weapons; it is in effect adhering to a “defacto moratorium.”

When the new parliament is convened in October, the German contact point for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots looks forward to talking with members of parliament about the need for German leadership in efforts to ban fully autonomous weapons.

Photo: Berlin’s Alexanderplatz

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