The Anti-‘Killer Robots’ Agenda: Mapping Obstacles and Exploring Possibilities for Indonesia’s Role

Status Quo Overview

The issue of killer robots has been discussed in UN General Assembly for the past few years. ‘Killer robots’ itself is a popular terminology to describe Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) that, once activated, can select and engage dismounted human targets without further intervention by a human operator (ICRC, n.d.). At this point, it’s important to make a distinction between LAWS and drones; while drones still need human decision to an extent and are not limited to military purposes, LAWS are based on algorithms, therefore they do not necessarily require human’s affirmation before attacking their preset targets. In 2018, nearly 50 states addressed killer robots concerns in their statements to the 73rd session of the UNGA, including regarding the needs for regulation, ensuring a guarantee of human control, as well as ethical and moral questions and humanitarian law foundations about LAWS.

Recently, in the 2019 GA Session, dozens of states wished to negotiate a treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, where 30 states have agreed to ban fully autonomous weapons or LAWS. However, this is not yet the final conclusion or even an universally agreed goal of CCW meetings. In reality, discussing this issue under CCW framework in the UNGA poses a fair number of problems. First is the slow pace of its progress. Instead of reaching a conclusion about drafting regulations or abolishment, states agreed to spend the next two years developing a “normative and operational framework” to address concerns raised by such weapons systems (Wareham, 2019). Second is regarding the substantive aspects, in which states still argue about the very essence of LAWS which makes it difficult to proceed further. At this point, there is yet to be a consensus on whether LAWS should be banned or regulated, as well as contending ideas about whether the legal instrument should be a voluntary agreement or legally binding rules. These confusions prolong the eventual technical steps needed to create a convention.

Since 80% of past General Assembly resolutions are agreed by consensus, political interests of states is also another thing to consider, especially those of major power states with generally bigger bargaining positions. In the case of LAWS, big powers have stakes in whether or not killer robots should be prohibited since many of such states have already developed their own LAWS, including 4 out of 5 Security Council permanent members excluding France, all of which rejected the ban for LAWS (Ray, 2018). Moreover, some states tend to be non-contributive in the debate. As reported by Human Rights Watch, during the discussions of LAWS, United States was mostly silent and Russia was mostly obstructive (Ray, 2018). China meanwhile called for a ban only for the use but not the development LAWS, which is seen as a strategy to give them leniency in pursuing such technology for their own advantage. These attitudes then hamper states’ agreement on possible multilateral action to address the risk of LAWS. Regarding this, it has been criticized that rather than a political forum for debate on key issues, the First Committee agenda has turned into a resolution-generating machine, from which repetitive, redundant resolutions are tabled and voted on year after year (Reaching Critical Will, n.d.). And since no common understanding or consensus the goal has been reached, even the prospect of any resolution is still difficult.

Why do Middle Powers Need to be Involved?

The global discourse of LAWS is often framed as an ‘AI race’ between great powers, a situation being fed by how major powers are the ones with the highest possibility of using such technology as means of warfare. However, there are reasons why middle power states, even those without possession of LAWS, should be getting more involved in LAWS discourse. First, due to the nature of middle powers themselves. Defined here as states with level of influence below those of superpowers, but significant enough of it to become valuable players in the international level, middle powers have strategic position to influence international events. It has been explained before how debates on killer robots are often stunted by the unwillingness of major powers, and a multilateral approach must be taken in order to produce an internationally-agreed basis for the ban of LAWS. Here, one of middle powers’ characteristics which is their tendency to rely on diplomacy to pursue foreign policy goals can be influential in shaping the global norms of LAWS (Britannica, n.d.). With enough number of states being vocal for the ban of LAWS, major powers will have more reasons to submit to the norm. As we cannot wait for major powers to somehow drop their interests to secure themselves in the security dilemma, therein lies middle powers’ ‘normative’ reason to be involved in the issue of killer robots.

Discussing about norms-shaping, at this point it’s also important to remember how states are not the only stakeholders in the issue of LAWS. We cannot disregard the role of weapon manufacturers—often working for the demands of states. A survey by PAX shows a concerning result: 30 out of 50 arms producers are categorized as ‘high risk,’ meaning that they work on increasingly autonomous weapon systems and do not appear to have a policy or stance against LAWS (PAX, 2019). As private entities, the only way to be able to control what is or what is not being produced by these manufacturers is the existence of a universal, legal standard regarding LAWS. Having such legal standard promptly gives economic certainty to companies engaged in military technology producing, since they can avoid the eventual loss that might happen if the weapon they are producing suddenly becomes illegal. This is also why defense contractors including Germany’s Rheinmetall called for government to work for a treaty. The existence of a treaty will also serve as a common norm that discourages participating in economic activities that contribute to LAWS as a dangerous, high-risk, and unethical technology. Not limited to weapon manufacturers, such norm should be pushed to prevent technology companies from assisting the creation of AI-based LAWS for military purposes. However, since international humanitarian laws are only applicable to state entities and to some extent individuals, states still have to be the main party to be involved, yet another reason for middle powers to drive the agenda to shape such norms.

The second reason is a rational one. Although it is widely known that LAWS is an advanced military technology which not every state possesses, the nature of this technology has the possibility to change the outlook of modern warfare for good, which affects not only those who possesses such technology. The lack of control over killer robots and their usage mainly benefits major military powers who already have developed such technology. Vice versa, when LAWS is not outlawed or prohibited, states who do not possess such technology will be placed in a risky position due to the resulting uneven arms race. This serves as an incentive for non-possessing states to be more vocal for a ban, especially since ‘catching-up’ to major powers’ current mastery and possession of LAWS is not an easy feat to do. In place of a security dilemma, it is more logical for non-possessing states to halt further possibilities of LAWS-based warfare. In this aspect, perceiving LAWS as something disadvataging in the long run rather than just an objective pursued by major military powers serve as a  rational consideration for middle power states to hopefully be engaged to drive the agenda on LAWS prohibition.

Additionally, the current lack of LAWS in some states must not be taken for granted. If no ban is in place, it’s not impossible that other countries especially developed middle powers will follow developments in this field, guided by their own strategic context and security interests. In fact, for states such as Israel, India, and South Korea, LAWS present an opportunity to effectively police borders and respond to potential skirmishes among others (Ray, 2018), which they have begun to do so. The usage of autonomous systems for border security purposes is not a black-and-white matter—it is fair to mention that such technology might help prevent unnecessary human casualties by providing automated surveillance system, especially in heavily militarised area or in states with no large standing personnel capacity (Ray, 2018). Therefore, what needs to also be emphasized is whether or not humans retain control over the decisionmaking, an important distinction in the discussion of LAWS. There should be a consensus that a meaningful human control must be possessed by any kind of military technology to ensure responsibility of attacks as well as adhering to humanitarian law principles. This is precisely the task of international community and state actors to include humanitarian concerns in the debate of LAWS and in the formation of a potential international norms as has been discussed above.

Mapping Indonesia’s Role, or Lack Thereof  

As of now, regional organizations to some extent have been becoming stakeholders in pushing the abolishment of killer robots agenda. For example, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) parliamentary assembly has adopted a declaration urging the 57 OSCE member states “to support international negotiations to ban lethal autonomous weapons,” although this will ultimately be up to each country’s decision. Furthermore, specifically in the context of ASEAN as a regional body, the discourse of LAWS is not as advanced, perhaps due to how most of its member states are not openly pursuing the usage of LAWS. In one hand, this situation is relieving, but as has been explained, states that are  traditionally not ‘big players’ in the international arena must also step up and be proactively engaged in the global discussion on LAWS abolishment. here is no justification to ignore possibilities of LAWS, especially with how Southeast Asian states are surrounded by major powers’ geopolitical contestations which might expose these countries to the utilization of LAWS while they themselves have no similar capacity. Moreover, with some of the aforementioned states being a maritime power, it is also worthy to consider that autonomous weapon systems have been regarded as an effective means to guard maritime sovereignty, enhance maritime domain awareness (MDA), and deter incursions (Ray, 2018).

The question right now would be, where’s Indonesia? Currently, Indonesia is not listed as one of the countries wanting to ban killer robots, nor the ones opposing said ban. However, Indonesia has spoken several times about the issue of LAWS, including as a representative for Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the 74th session of First Committee General Assembly agenda.  Therefore it is safe to say Indonesia endorses NAM’s stance that a preemptive ban on killer robots is necessary, and to quote Indonesian representative’s statement on behalf of NAM, “Issues surrounding LAWS should be deliberated thoroughly in conformity to internationai law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” Furthermore, since NAM States Parties to CCW also support the establishment of an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) related to LAWS, it is fitting for Indonesia to be involved in a bigger capacity (Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, n.d.) by simultaneously highlighting the importance of multilateral efforts in disarmament and non-proliferation of LAWS as .has been mentioned during aforementioned NAM’s statement (Djani, 2019).

Indonesia itself has a good reason to take the mantle of regional leader. One visible advantage to this is public image: by taking the first step to be a state that supports the prohibition of LAWS and publicly stating its position against the usage of LAWS, Indonesia might be able to showcase its commitment as a formidable but peaceful middle power, as well as cementing its role as a prominent pioneering figure in both ASEAN and NAM. Not to mention, pushing for killer robots ban would also mean playing our role as a current member of both UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, a feat made better if it successfully encourage other member states to follow in the footsteps. Furthermore, to circumvent the slow process in the international fora, a regional-based appropriate frameworks regarding LAWS can be employed as one of the ways to pursue this agenda, and set the stepping stone for a international norm against LAWS.

Now is a good time as any to take the step: one reason to be optimistic about this is the apparent popular civilian support for a ban against LAWS. Global civil society seemingly has apprehensively reacted towards the existence of LAWS. A global poll taken by Ipsos in 26 countries showed  that 61% of the global respondents are opposed to killer robots. This number of opposition in an increase from the previous two years (Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, 2020). Additionally, YouGov survey across ten European countries in October found strong support for the goal of banning killer robots with more than seven in ten respondents favored their country working for an international ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems (Campaign To Stop Killer Robots, 2020). With Campaign to Stop Killer Robots that advocates for LAWS international ban has recently been launched in Southeast Asia as a regional coalition, it hopefully can take measures not only to influence decision makers through diplomatic channels but also disseminate knowledge to the general public about the risks of LAWS, which consequently may affect decisionmaking in the state level, especially in such democratic country to push for LAWS ban.

Bottom line, taking into account the current obstacles being present in the international fora as well as the pressing urgency to create a global norm regarding the ban of LAWS, the ideal thing for Indonesia is to take a firm stance and play the leadership position among the region and among middle powers to advocate this issue.With more stakeholders being vocal about how LAWS should be treated, the international community can bypass the current stagnancy and move on to produce an international legal framework.


“Autonomous Weapon Systems – Online Casebook.” Accessed January 8, 2020.

“Defending Multilateralism in 2019.” The Campaign To Stop Killer Robots. Accessed January 8, 2020.

“Global Poll Shows 61% Oppose Killer Robots.” The Campaign To Stop Killer Robots. Accessed January 8, 2020.

“Middle Power,” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed February 26, 2020.

“Statement by H. E. Amb. Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Indonesia on Behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement.” First Committee General Debate, 74th Session of the UN General Assembly. New York, October 7, 2019.

“UN General Assembly First Committee.” Reaching Critical Will. Accessed January 8, 2020.

“UN Head Calls for a Ban.” The Campaign To Stop Killer Robots. Accessed January 8, 2020.

PAX, ‘Slippery Slope: The arms industry and increasingly autonomous weapons,’ PAX Report, November 2019.

Ray, T. ‘Beyond the ‘Lethal’ in Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Applications of LAWS in

Theatres of Conflict for Middle Powers.’ ORF Occasional Paper (180), 2018, 4.

Wareham, M. “Ringing the Alarm on Killer Robots.” Human Rights Watch, November 21, 2019.

Writer: Heidira Witri Hadayani
Editor: Yunizar Adiputera, Angganararas Indriyosanti

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.