In December 2018, the Journal of International Affairs interviewed Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, on the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for global peace and security. Ms. Nakamitsu assumed her current position in May 2017. Prior to this post, she served as Assistant Administrator of the Crisis Response Unit at the United Nations Development Programme since 2014.

Ms. Nakamitsu has many years of experience within and outside the United Nations system, most recently as Special Adviser Ad Interim on Follow-up to the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants between 2016 and 2017. She was previously Director of the Asia and the Middle East Division of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations between 2012 and 2014, and Director of the Department’s Division of Policy, Evaluation and Training, from 2008 to 2012.

Between 2005 and 2008, Ms. Nakamitsu was Professor of International Relations at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, where she also served as a member of the Foreign Exchange Council to Japan’s Foreign Minister, and as a visiting senior adviser on peacebuilding at the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Between 1998 and 2004, she was the Chef de Cabinet and Director of Planning and Coordination at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, based in Stockholm, Sweden.

Earlier in her career, Ms. Nakamitsu was a member of the United Nations Reform Team of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. She also held positions with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including within the office of Assistant High Commissioner for Policy and Operations Sergio Vieira de Mello, and in UNHCR field operations in the former Yugoslavia, Turkey and northern Iraq.

Journal: Much of what is written about the technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution tends to focus on the enabling role such technologies will play in bringing about better outcomes for individuals. Your Office is concerned with the opposite. How is scientific and technological advancement today threatening global peace and security? 

Nakamitsu: I should start by saying that my Office is not exclusively focused on the negative applications of new technologies. In fact, we also promote the beneficial applications these technologies could have for advancing disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control objectives. It’s also important to underscore that the United Nations is not interested in hampering scientific investigation and innovation, or the broader beneficial applications of these technologies, which will be key enablers for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Our challenge is really to work out how to understand, manage and mitigate the potential negative implications of various technological advances in a way that avoids hampering social and economic development.

With that caveat out of the way, it is true that we are primarily focused on possible negative implications for peace and security of various advances in science and technology, both individually and in combination. As laid out in the Secretary-General’s agenda for disarmament released in May, many technological developments are enabling, at an accelerating pace, the design and acquisition of new weapon technologies with unclear or potentially dangerous applications. For example, increasing autonomy in weapons raises questions about human accountability for the use of force. The novel capabilities of uncrewed vehicles can provide incentives for users to reinterpret international law applying to the use of force. From a non-proliferation perspective, there are concerns regarding the ability of new technologies such as synthetic biology to lower barriers to prohibited weapons, or the possible use of additive manufacturing to assist in the undesirable dissemination of controlled or sensitive weapons-related items. There are also concerns about the potential for new technologies to be used to commit hostile acts in circumstances that fall short of traditional thresholds of an armed attack. Cyber operations could be one example.

Journal: At the United Nations General Assembly in September this year, Secretary General António Guterres stated that “the prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.” Are we on the cusp of a 21st century algorithm-driven arms race? Or is there a window of opportunity to embed ethical and legal frameworks in the design and programming of new weapons?

Nakamitsu: I remain hopeful that there continues to be an opportunity to ensure that humans retain control over weapons and the use of force. The Secretary-General has taken a very strong position on this issue: he has stated that machines that have the power and discretion to take human life should be banned. Several States share this position, as do a number of civil society organizations and artificial intelligence and robotics researchers. There are, of course other views, but there is certainly an emerging consensus around the importance of maintaining human control over the use of force.

Moreover, we have a process underway for State consideration of these issues. The Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) have been considering emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems since 2014, and in a formal format since 2017. In this regard, the Secretary-General has committed to supporting States’ efforts to elaborate new measures to ensure that humans remain at all times in control over the use of force. The CCW provides a useful platform given its openness to civil society and its structure, which is flexible enough to respond to technological advances. The key remaining ingredient, as in all disarmament and arms control efforts, is political will.

Journal: Earlier this year, Google employees protested the company’s involvement in developing combat-zone technology for the Pentagon. How involved are private technology companies in discussions on the use and control of new AI-enabled weapons? Are you hopeful we will see better connections between the legal, ethical and technological sides of this debate than we have perhaps witnessed in the past?

Nakamitsu: We have had excellent private sector engagement in the discussions within the CCW to date, not only from Google but from technology-related organizations big and small from across the globe. Academic and private sector expertise is crucial for ensuring government deliberations are appropriately and comprehensively informed by up to date technical information, as well as the perspectives of those stakeholders, who have not traditionally been part of disarmament and arms control deliberations. 

This engagement is a two-way street. Another emphasis in the Secretary-General’s agenda for disarmament is the importance of responsible innovation and the responsible dissemination of scientific knowledge. The Secretary-General intends to work with scientists, engineers and industry to this end, and the robust dialogue with these sectors on autonomous weapons has been an excellent start. We can also build on similar discussions that have been taking place for many years in relation to biological and chemical weapons, which have resulted in several voluntary codes of conduct and codes of ethics at the institutional, national and international levels, including the Hague Ethical Guidelines developed within the framework of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Another avenue for this engagement is the new high-level panel on digital cooperation created by the Secretary-General this July. The panel, which is co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, aims to strengthen cooperation in the digital space between Governments, the private sector, civil society, international organizations, academia, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders. While it won’t be focused on peace and security issues per se, I am sure that the relationships and partnership built through this process will be valuable in our shared endeavour to manage peace and security challenges in the digital age.

Journal: How do we go about finding consensus on limiting the use of new forms of weapons technology when, some would argue, our current system of arms control and multilateralism itself are under assault?

Nakamitsu: While it is true that there are unique and urgent challenges in the fields of disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control today, I would argue that these challenges provide further impetus to our work. States are beginning to realize that determined and sustained efforts are necessary if we are to safeguard and build upon the gains made and ensure that our shared values, including as enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, lead us into the future, rather than a value-blind march of technological progress.

Many of these emerging weapons issues also effectively demonstrate that multilateralism is essential in the 21stcentury. There is no unilateral solution to these issues. They will affect all Member States of the United Nations and therefore need to be addressed collectively.

Journal: I want to shift gears slightly to discuss gender perspectives on disarmament. It is well documented that AI-based systems mimic and even amplify underlying gender and racial biases in society. How do we ensure that gender perspectives on the use and control of AI-enabled weapons are meaningfully incorporated and the concerns addressed?

Nakamitsu: One way is to ensure women are part of the conversation. While this should not be seen as a cure-all, gender parity is a necessary condition for fair and effective conversations on these issues. Research shows that women’s involvement in peace and security issues has tangible dividends: when women are involved in peace processes, resulting agreements are 20 per cent more likely to last two or more years and 35 per cent more likely to last more than 15 years. Yet women continue to struggle to get a seat at these tables.

In the disarmament world, we are seeing increasing recognition of this reality. I am pleased to see more and more Member States raising gender parity and gendered perspectives on weapons in various disarmament bodies. On our part, the United Nations Secretariat has set itself ambitious goals to reach gender parity at every level within our organization by 2028, and we have put in place strategies for getting there. Within my office, we are taking a number of concrete steps, including revising the selection procedures of the bodies over whose composition we have influence, instituting a system-wide policy to decline participation on single-gender panels, and publishing gender disaggregated data on participation in multilateral meetings on disarmament.

Another strategy is to consciously make the effort to incorporate gender perspectives into everything we do. In this regard, we can look to our partners in civil society to lead the way. I know that one of the most well attended side events at the last CCW meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems concerned feminist approaches to the issue. We must systematically apply this lens across every area of our work, from small arms to weapons of mass destruction, and we are increasingly seeing this call coming from Member States as well.

Journal: To end on a positive note: some of the same technologies that challenge peace and security could also enhance it. How do the United Nations and other international organisations use advanced technologies to promote and ensure disarmament?

Nakamitsu: I am not a technologist, but I am encouraged by the beneficial applications of many cutting-edge fields of science and technology for the disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control community. For example, advances in radiography could improve our ability to detect smuggled fissile material. Advances in sensor technology could improve ground-based and airborne verification techniques. Advances in the life sciences mean that the global ability to detect and treat disease has been enhanced, regardless of whether an outbreak is naturally occurring of the result of a deliberate act. Advanced cryptographic techniques, including distributed ledger technologies, may be applied in weapons tracking and in checking the veracity of data provided for verification techniques. 

We in the United Nations know we need to build our capacity in this respect. As well as launching a new agenda for disarmament and a high-level panel on digital cooperation, the Secretary-General this year released an internal strategy on new technologies. This strategy articulates how the United Nations system will support the use of new technologies and facilitate their alignment with the values enshrined in the UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the norms and standards of international law. The strategy lays out steps for improving our internal capacity, increasing advocacy and dialogue, supporting normative dialogue and enhancing UN system support to Member States.