Workshop on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems – opening remarks

Wednesday 14 April 2021
Good morning,
I am so pleased to be able to join you for part of this workshop, which I’m confident will help us along the path to developing New Zealand’s national policy on the issue of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.
In taking on this portfolio I’ve been keen to bring some strong political impetus to disarmament and arms control. I see my role, broadly, as being two-fold – ensuring that New Zealand continues to have a vibrant domestic community of activists, experts, and politicians dedicated to these issues, while also making sure the Government plays a proactive and constructive role in international, through the various avenues available to us. These are interdependent goals – New Zealand cannot contribute strongly internationally if we don’t have the expertise to call on at home, but likewise few people will be willing to dedicate their lives to these matters if they perceive the Government as disinterested, and not playing its part on the world stage. This workshop is part of a wider programme of outreach which I believe is already proving its worth, and I would encourage you all to continue to engage with me on these endeavours into the future.
I know that many of you in the room have questions as to why it has taken so long to commence this journey – and certainly there are well known views here about where you’d like it to end up! You can be sure that I am aware of the need for New Zealand to accelerate its consideration of this complex policy issue and, as those of you who have followed my public engagements on disarmament to date will know, I have directed officials to do just that.
A complex policy problem requiring a multi-stakeholder approach
As you all know, the spectre of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (or “LAWS”) is the very definition of a complex policy problem. It will require a multi-stakeholder approach to understand the breadth and depth of issues in play and to make sure that New Zealand’s policy is robust, effective and durable. Luckily, this sort of approach is one that New Zealand is very familiar with. Working openly and in a trusted way with civil society, academics, military experts, officials and our international partners has helped us achieve great outcomes on other types of weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons – and I know there are some in the room who have played a vital role on each and every one of those issues too.
In many ways, the issue of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems is even more complex and complicated than the conventional weapons issues we have dealt with in the past.  The technical and evolving nature of the systems that we are talking about; the opacity around exactly which systems already exists and what might be under development; and concerns around the dual use nature of much of the technology in question – these are all challenging aspects of the issue under consideration.
At the same time, many of the critical discussions on LAWS are taking place in Geneva, where smaller delegations like New Zealand struggle to achieve the level of expert engagement that would help move the debate forward, and where broader multilateral dynamics often have an unfortunate impact on both the pace and direction of progress. And of course, the impact of COVID-19 on resourcing and policy priorities – both at the national and international level – cannot be overlooked.
New Zealand’s approach to date
Against this backdrop, and over the last few years of multilateral engagement on the issue, New Zealand has emphasised our concerns about the legal, ethical and human rights challenges posed by autonomous weapons systems. We have developed a broad approach to LAWS that reflects our unwavering commitment to international law and the need to ensure meaningful human control over weapons systems, as well as clear lines of responsibility for their development, deployment and use.
New Zealand has strongly supported the development of 11 Guiding Principles by the Group of Governmental experts on this issue. We have also encouraged the Group to focus on providing greater clarity on the type and degree of human involvement necessary at various stages of the life cycle of a weapon to ensure that compliance with international law. At the same time, we have supported exploring additional avenues for more effectively controlling LAWS – for example, by establishing guidelines and safeguards through a political declaration, or by strengthening the existing framework for national weapons reviews.
In the joint paper submitted last year by New Zealand (together with eight other states) to the Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts, we laid out the foundation for how we believe this issue could be taken forward. Within this small group, New Zealand agreed that compliance with relevant international law requires context-specific value-based judgment by a human, which must not be substituted by autonomous machines or systems.
We also supported the development of a transparent, normative and operational framework for the evaluation of emerging technologies in the area of LAWS, to help ensure that these weapons are only ever developed, deployed and used in conformity with international law.  Our rationale for doing so was our clear recognition of the need to move beyond statements about the need for meaningful human control, or for “context-specific value-based judgment”, and to instead build a clear understanding of how such a requirement can be practically implemented.
At the same time, our joint paper also identified cognitive limitations of systems, the possibility of inaccurate or incomplete data, and algorithmic bias as key challenges that must be considered when designing, deploying and using autonomous weapons systems. 
Importantly, the joint paper was agreed to on the basis that it did not prejudge the national policy positions that might be pursued in the future.
That is just a snapshot of what New Zealand has done to date and where we stand right now – and I know there will be a further brief panel presentation on this later this morning. It is our starting point, which reflects how we have applied New Zealand’s interests, values and priorities to the debate.
The focus for us today – and for you – is where we should go from here.
Workshop focus
I know you have before you today a comprehensive set of questions – none of them easy but all of them important. They aim to gather your perspectives and insights on the many different factors under consideration here, with a view to compiling a good understanding of where New Zealand stakeholders stand on key issues.
What weapons systems do we see as being within scope and of concern?
What is the degree and nature of human control that New Zealand thinks is required for LAWS to be ethically acceptable and to comply with the rules of International Humanitarian Law?
What are the broader security and policy issues that need to be taken into account as we develop our national policy?
What principles and priorities should underpin our policy development?
And what should our next steps be, domestically and internationally?
With those questions in mind, I am particularly pleased to see such a wide range of expertise and experience in the room, many of whom have travelled from around New Zealand to be here. I can see from the bios shared in advance of the meeting that we have academics with us who have written extensively not just on LAWS but on broader issues relating to AI and weaponisation, and to the intersection of legal, ethical and political concerns about these technologies.
We also have those with detailed technical knowledge of the sorts of technology we are talking about, and a practical understanding of what efforts to control them would mean for New Zealand – for our people, our industries, and our reputation.
We have activists and campaigners, who have been leading both national and international efforts to address concerns about these weapon systems. [We are particularly lucky to have Mary Wareham with us, who until very recently has been head of the International Campaign to Ban Killer Robots and – until even more recently – in MIQ!]
And we have officials from a range of different agencies, who bring with them experience on disarmament and multilateral negotiations, on defence requirements and on whole-of-government approaches to the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence.
I have invited some of my parliamentary colleagues, too, who I know share my deep interest in this issue and who are keen to see more active New Zealand engagement on it.
In addition, and with our profound thanks for doing this at a time that suits New Zealand – which I appreciate is not always the case – we are fortunate to have with us two international experts on the issue, Dr Heather Roff and Richard Moyes. I’m really looking forward to hearing your presentations, and the perspectives that you will bring to our deliberations today.
Finally, the point of all of this is to build a strong policy platform so we can step up and contribute to international efforts to regulate and ban lethal autonomous weapons systems.
I wish you all the best for an interesting and productive days. Although I need to leave following the first session I’m looking forward to returning for the closing segment. I am eager to hear about how your discussion of the major issues and the key messages you want to share with the Government on LAWS. I think it is going to be the start of a very interesting conversation.
PLEASE NOTE: Speech as delivered may differ slightly from these notes. 

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