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Killer robots could start new arms race, human rights groups say

Human Rights Watch calls for an international ban of fully autonomous weapons as UN takes up debate

The use of fully autonomous weapons, or killer robots, by militaries or law enforcement would be an affront to basic human rights and should be pre-emptively banned by international convention, a new report released by leading human rights groups said on Monday.

The report (PDF), jointly authored by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, comes ahead of the United Nations multiday conference on Tuesday. Convened by parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), it will be the first multilateral session to discuss the legal and human rights implications of killer robots by its 117 signatories.

“In policing as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at HRW, in a press release for the report.

“Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to pre-emptively ban them now, before it is too late,” he said.

Killer robots are a technological step beyond unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, which are still contingent on human decision-making, but the autonomous weapons will be technologically feasible in the near future.

“Unlike any existing weapons, these robots would identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention. They would therefore have the power to determine when to take human life,” the report said.

It argues that killer robots contravene standards of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, the bodies of international law that cover peace and warfare. Any ban would therefore apply to international wars, international policing actions (as in the deployment of drones internationally against people designated terrorists) and domestic law enforcement operations.

“The development of autonomous weapon systems has profound implications for the future of warfare," said Kathleen Lawand, head of the arms unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in a Monday press release.

"The central issue is the potential absence of human control over the critical functions of identifying and attacking targets, including human targets. There is a sense of deep discomfort with the idea of allowing machines to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield with little or no human involvement,” she said.

Calls have been growing in recent years to pre-empt the eventual development of fully automated weapon systems with an international legal ban.

In 2013 the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched as an international coalition of NGOs to prevent the development of the technology.            

Later that year, Christof Heyns, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, issued a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council outlining a number of objections to the use of the killer robots, including their “limited abilities to make the qualitative assessments that are often called for when dealing with human life.”

Also on Monday, a group of individuals and organizations that have received the Nobel Peace Prize issued a joint statement condemning their use and supporting an international ban.

“It is unconscionable that human beings are expanding research and development of lethal machines that would be able to kill people without human intervention,” read the statement, which included signatures from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former South African President F.W. de Klerk, Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi and former Polish President Lech Walesa.

“Lethal robots would completely and forever change the face of war and likely spawn a new arms race,” the statement said. 

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