HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 23 FEBRUARY 2021
In 1997 the anti-personnel mine ban treaty was opened for signature by the UN General Assembly and it came into force in 1999. When it was initially proposed, the Australian Army argued in favour of the tactical utility of landmines. But, as Hugh White recalls, the debate within Defence swung against mines as a result of people's recollection of the experience of de-mining in Cambodia and also the casualties caused in Vietnam, where landmines laid by Australians were dug up and used against our troops. As Stephanie Koorey noted in an article about the landmine treaty for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, it has saved lives as a result of changing the norms around landmines.
These days, the modern equivalent of landmines are lethal autonomous weapon systems, which delegate life-and-death decisions to machines. These so-called killer robots are able to make a life-and-death decision without human intervention. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated:
For me there is a message that is very clear — machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law.
Thirty countries, along with the non-aligned movement, have explicitly called for such a ban. Australia, however, has taken a somewhat opaque approach to lethal autonomous weapons, despite working on autonomous weapon systems such as the Loyal Wingman project and a range of projects identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Australia has not acknowledged the ethical challenges that these technologies present.
It is tempting to think that new technologies can just be used by the forces of light but, as past experience has shown, we need to regulate based on the assumption that the most nefarious actors and the most dubiously moral states will use such weapons. Those are the grounds for bans on poison gas and torture, and that's the principle which Australia should approach lethal autonomous weapon systems.
I acknowledge the important work of Matilda Byrne on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and call on the government to engage more fully with the Australian people and the international community on the critical debate over the regulation of lethal autonomous weapon systems.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.