Ignominious Anniversary


To mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 2020, Mines Action Canada Program Manager, Erin Hunt, spoke at Ethics in Tech's event called "Ignominious Anniversary: Remembering Hiroshima and Imagining a World Without Autonomous Killer Robots, Nuclear Weapons and Blanket Surveillance." You can watch the whole event online at the Ethics in Tech website or on YouTube: 

Read more for her full remarks.

Thank you Vahid and the team at Ethics in Tech for the invitation and thanks to all of you for letting me into your homes this evening. I’m pleased to be speaking to you from Vancouver Island, Canada on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen people. 

I’m the Program Manager at Mines Action Canada which is Canada’s humanitarian disarmament campaign. Humanitarian disarmament puts the focus on the humanitarian impact of weapons - meaning people are at the centre. 

As you have heard from the other speakers, nuclear weapons take an unimaginable toll on people. For some context, the horrible explosion in Beirut this week was a fraction of the damage a nuclear weapon would cause.Today, the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, is an excellent time to reflect on the actions people have taken to promote nuclear disarmament and efforts being made to prevent future indiscriminate and inhumane weapons from being used.

I have to say I was a little uncertain about combining commemoration of Hiroshima with comedy but as I thought about all my interactions with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, beyond the pain of their stories, the laughter has stood out for me whether we were joking about negotiation snacks, conspiring to make Canadian politicians feel uncomfortable about their lack of action on the issue or having a few pints on Peaceboat there has been a lot of laughter. 75 years ago Hiroshima was full of people with the same range of emotions any of us have and we cannot forget that the world was robbed of so much laughter, joy and light when that bomb killed thousands of people in the blink of an eye. But we also cannot ignore the laughter, the joy and the light that helps fuel activism. So today is a chance to mourn those lost but it is also an opportunity to embrace action fueled by laughter, compassion and comradery.

Taking action is what is needed. People around the world have been speaking out about nuclear weapons for 75 years now but the past seven years have seen a dramatic shift in nuclear disarmament at the diplomatic level and a lot of that was due to action from regular people like you.Between March 2013 and December 2014, over 100 states, along with international organizations and civil society led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons aka ICAN, met three times to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, through a diplomatic process known as the Humanitarian Initiative. Shockingly, these meetings were the first time the international community had discussed the humanitarian harm caused by nuclear weapons and our collective capacity to respond should a nuclear weapon be detonated again.

Those meetings led to 2016’s UN resolution to start negotiations, which was passed by the United Nations General Assembly by a wide margin.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, usually referred to by the acronym TPNW, was adopted in July 2017 and opened for signature in September 2017. It currently has 84 signatories and 43 ratifications of the 50 states parties needed for entry into force to make it international law. For our efforts to highlight the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and our role in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course there has been opposition, we know that some nuclear-armed states, particularly the U.S. and the United Kingdom, were pressuring Canada and other allied states to not attend the negotiations, regardless of their decades-old obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (aka NPT). Canada was invited to join the American led press conference to express their objections to the start of negotiations but did not (side note – if you object to some negotiations, holding a press conference outside the room they are starting in, is a sure-fire way to ensure the negotiations you object to so much are front page news).

Critics say the TPNW threatens global security and it won’t eliminate any nuclear weapons. First there’s no evidence that nuclear weapons actually keep us safe. For some reason when we talk about nuclear weapons, the concept that correlation doesn’t mean causation goes right out the door. We do know that there have been dozens of near misses including a flock of geese being mistaken for incoming missiles, bombs falling off plans, computer glitches and a wrench being dropped in a missile silo resulting in the missile exploding but luckily for everyone who lived in Arkansas in 1980 - not the warhead.

The assertion that the treaty will not eliminate any nuclear weapons has a simple response: Well, of course not — treaties are not magic. We know that getting a treaty (and even winning the Nobel Peace Prize) is the easy part, the real work comes when you have to turn the words into reality and strengthen the norm so that the idea of having or using nuclear weapons becomes unthinkable. We are doing the real work now and I’m going to share some ways you can help.

But first I’ve been asked to also talk about killer robots – these future weapons go by a number of names: fully autonomous weapons, autonomous weapons systems, lethal autonomous weapons.  All these phrases mean the same thing, weapons systems that would be capable of selecting targets and using force—lethal or otherwise—without any human input or interaction. 

In 2013, Mines Action Canada and a number of other organizations founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots due to a variety of legal, technical, security, moral and ethical concerns. We are pleased to have Ethics in Tech among our partners in the Campaign. One thing that makes this campaign unique in the humanitarian disarmament world is the high number of roboticists, AI experts, engineers, computer scientists and other academics taking part in the campaign. Within a year of launching the campaign, a UN disarmament treaty called the Convention on Conventional Weapons took up the issue and since then has been discussing lethal autonomous weapons systems. I understand that UN talks about killer robots sounds a little surreal, so let’s talk a bit about the issue itself before getting into what you can do.

Autonomous weapons are problematic because there is no certainty that they would have the capacity to follow existing international humanitarian law and distinguish between combatants, who may be targeted, and civilians, who may not be.

A robot could not be programmed to deal with every situation it might encounter in the battlefield. So if a robot unlawfully killed a civilian instead of a soldier, who would be responsible? According to Human Rights Watch, the programmers, manufacturers, and military commanders would all likely escape liability. Under criminal law, if a military commander used the autonomous weapons intentionally to kill civilians, they would be held accountable. But it would be unfair and legally impossible to hold commanders accountable for situations when the robot acted in an unpredictable way that they could not foresee or prevent. It might be impossible to know why an autonomous weapon system targeted a civilian – it could have been spoofed, hacked, or damaged or maybe it simply implements its training or programming in an unexpected way.

Beyond the battlefield, autonomous weapons would threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity. Under human rights law, which applies during peacetime as well as armed conflict, these weapons could be prone to killing people unlawfully because the weapons could not be programmed to handle every situation. Autonomous weapons would also undermine human dignity, because as inanimate machines they could not understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away. This is just one of the many moral and ethical concerns about autonomous weapons.

These moral and ethical concerns, often voiced by scientists and engineers, remind me of the Russell-Einstein manifesto from 1955 which spoke of the dangers of nuclear weapons. The 11 signatories (including 10 Nobel Laureates) ask world leaders to: 

Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.

Those words apply now more than ever as technology advances in new and concerning ways while we are seeing increased tension around the world. 

But even as the COVID-19 pandemic forces diplomacy online and provides ample distraction from these issues, ordinary citizens are proving that MAC’s organizational motto “ordinary people, extraordinary impact” continues to be true. 

Ordinary people making the impossible possible is common in disarmament and there’s a pretty simple formula for how. I’ve adapted this from my colleague Ray Acheson from WILPF who talks about how discontent, courage and action resulted in the Treaty in the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I disagree with Ray slightly in that I believe it’s conviction, courage and collective action. Discontent needs a conviction that a better world is possible to allow people to move forward and not be paralyzed by the enormity of the problem.

In each of these campaigns we’ve started out with pretty simple convictions

  • Nuclear weapons threaten all of us so they should be prohibited and eliminated
  • There should always be meaningful human control over the use of force so autonomous weapons should be prohibited before they are ever developed or used

The campaigns were able to develop these convictions through research including through hearing from survivors, listening to scientists and including experts in affected communities. We used that information and a basic belief in human rights and the limits of war to build these convictions. 

Having conviction means little unless you have the courage to stand up for it. The strength of these convictions helps give you the courage you need to challenge the status quo – we had to speak up against global superpowers who want to keep their weapons, we get told we’re crazy, or told we’ll never succeed or worse.

The states that want to keep their nuclear weapons are angry and states who want to build autonomous weapons are indignant. Diplomats supporting action on these issues were confronted and pressured to not push for change, not to attend negotiations and not sign or ratify the treaties. When it comes to the nuclear ban treaty, proponents were told, we were unrealistic, overly emotional and naïve while also being accused of undermining the NPT and of dividing the international community despite the facts that that the call for a ban treaty was essentially calling for the implementation of a key Article  of the NPT, Article 6, and that every meeting of the humanitarian initiative and the negotiations were open to all states. 

On autonomous weapons, we have been told we are just luddites (but thousands of AI experts, roboticists and computer scientists support our call for a ban and campaign with us), or you can’t stop progress, it’s premature to ban autonomous weapons and we need to be more realistic.

Through all that campaigners and states had to have the courage to say “no these weapons are unacceptable”. The survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing have demonstrated an astounding amount of additional courage sharing their painful stories of loss and trauma again and again. 

With courage and conviction it’s easy to take action. One of the main focuses of our action has been to change the conversation. 

For too many decades, the global conversation about weapons was something for the experts and most of the time those experts were men with security or military backgrounds. The rest of us and our opinions were something to be humoured – maybe – but weapons were “serious” work for “serious” people and couldn’t be tainted with humanity or emotion. Actually discussing what weapons would do to people was considered a weakness.

Talking about what weapons do to people was one of the key ways disarmament campaigns and the international community broke through diplomatic deadlock. More importantly talking about the humanitarian impact of these abhorrent weapons allow all of us to have a say.

You don’t need to understand nuclear fusion to realize that weapons that destroy cities and irradiate people and the environment are illegitimate, and you don’t need a degree in computer science to find the idea of a machine choosing who lives and who dies on the battlefield or at the border abhorrent. 

Remember your humanity and forget the rest.

This formula of courage, conviction and collective action was successful in other disarmament treaties before the TPNW like the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions which MAC continues to be very involved in and we know it will help us prevent autonomous weapons from ever being used. 

Everyone has a role to play in efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons and ban killer robots. On nuclear weapons, ICAN has a city appeal where cities can pledge to support the treaty and if you check out dontbankonthebomb.com you can find out if your bank is investing money (your money) in nuclear weapon producers. Speak out - faith leaders have been crucially important for both campaigns as have military veterans plus on killer robots, tech workers speaking out at their companies and at the policy level have made real change because they do not have rose coloured glasses about what the tech can do. Even just helping Ethics in Tech get the word out is a huge help. Plus it’s an election year so you will probably be hearing from campaigns that want your vote - tell them that you want to see nuclear disarmament and a ban on killer robots. Ordinary people speaking up can have an extraordinary impact.

75 years ago today, my fellow campaigner, Setsuko Thurlow, was a 13 year old trying to free herself from the burning wreckage of a building in Hiroshima. She shares the story of how a man touched her shoulder and told her “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.” 

She made it to the light that day in 1945 and since then has been speaking out for nuclear disarmament in memory of her classmates and family members who did not. In December 2017 she delivered half of the Nobel Peace Prize lecture on behalf of ICAN. She called the TPNW a new light to guide us all and implored us to “follow each other out of the dark night of nuclear terror. No matter what obstacles we face, we will keep moving and keep pushing and keep sharing this light with others.”

Although things are quite dark right now, I hope that you will take Setusko’s words to heart and be inspired to find ways to be a light on these issues. It is possible to build a world without nuclear weapons and to prevent autonomous weapons from ever being built, we just need you to remember your humanity and speak up. 

Thank you.