By Brett Wilkins

An ethics committee appointed by the Norwegian government is recommending that companies that manufacture lethal autonomous weapons — killer robots — be excluded from investment by the country’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund.

Bloomberg reports the committee also urged the government to prohibit investment by the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) in companies that make submarines and other vehicles that deliver nuclear weapons. Additionally, the panel advised that new rules are needed to ensure that the fund does not hold any investments that could facilitate the sale of arms that might be used in conflicts in which human rights violations occur.

Investment & Pensions Europe reports Ethics Committee chairperson Ola Mestad presented the panel’s report to Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner on Monday, saying that its proposals “build on the existing framework of the fund.” Mestad said that the while that framework has worked well, the proposed changes are meant to reflect the evolution of ethical norms over the past 15 years since the Ethics Committee was created by royal decree, and to bring the guidelines up to date with new issues and technologies.

The report states that:

When automation becomes so extensive that it constitutes autonomy, it is not only the use of lethal force, but the very decision to deploy the use of force that is transferred to the machines. At that point, the system itself, absent any meaningful human overview, will be in a position
to select varying degrees of when, against whom and how lethal force should be applied. In the Committee’s opinion, it is fundamentally problematic that the critical decisions relating to the use of force are not subject to meaningful human control.

Although the future may see the emergence of technological sophistication capable of meeting the requirements of distinction under humanitarian law, i.e. the capacity to distinguish between military objectives and civilians, such autonomy would still be ethically problematic because of the ensuing erosion and disintegration of accountability implied under humanitarian law.

Activists working to oppose the development and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons applauded the committee’s recommendation. Mary Wareham, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division and global coordinator at the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an Ethics In Tech partner, called the news “an exciting, welcome and timely development.” Wareham was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 along with colleague Jody Williams for their work with the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBLM).

GPFG, popularly called the oil fund, was created in 1990 to invest surplus revenues from Norway’s massive petroleum sector. It currently holds over $1 trillion in assets, including over 1.4 percent of the world’s stocks and shares, and is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. In May 2018, the fund was worth about $195,000 per Norwegian citizen.

Since 2004, the fund has operated under ethical guidelines banning investment in companies that make cigarettes and other tobacco products, coal and certain weapons. Human rights and climate change must also be taken into account when considering investments. Some critics have called the ethical guidelines ironic and even hypocritical, arguing that the production of fossil fuels is inherently unethical in an age of increasingly severe anthropogenic climate change.

A 2012 investigation by the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv found that the fund had invested more than $2 billion in 15 companies that produced surveillance technology utilized by oppressive authoritarian regimes including Iran, Myanmar and Syria. The Ministry of Finance subsequently announced it would not divest from these companies.

GPFG has also barred investment in companies involved in the illegal Israeli occupation and settler colonization of Palestine. Some of the US firms on the fund’s blacklist include Altria and Philip Morris (tobacco), Boeing and Northrop Grumman (nuclear weapons maintenance), Duke Energy (environment), General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon (cluster bombs) and Walmart (human and labor rights violations).

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