The challenge of autonomous weapons

Anti-killer robot displayed in London, 2013 Anti-killer robot displayed in London, 2013 © Oli Scarff/Getty Images

This article is a brief presentation of “Stopping killer robots” by Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an international organization operating in more than 40 countries. In 2013, HRW, together with 160 non-governmental organizations in 65 countries, launched a campaign “Stop Killer Robots” to raise awareness on weapons systems that select and engage targets without human control. 

The report illustrates how 97 countries have responded to the campaign to ban autonomous weapons since the matter was first discussed at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2013. The report includes statements of the UN General Assembly and other publicly available information such as the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems which took place  between 2014 and 2019. 

According to HRW, all countries should urgently ban killer robots as they pose a threat to humanity. An increasing number of policymakers, international organizations have responded to the UN Secretary-General’s call to prohibit such weapons which are “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable”. However, due to the insufficient political leadership, autonomous weapons have not been banned completely  by a binding instrument similar to  the bans adopted in 1997 for antipersonnel landmines  and in 2008 for cluster munitions.

Despite the widespread consensus over the ethical, moral and legal concerns about  removing human control from the use of force, several countries, including  China, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are investing in autonomous weapons systems. Since 1993, 97 countries have publicly expressed concerns on killer robots. Their active engagement in CCW meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems between 2014 and 2019 demonstrates growing awareness on this issue. For instance, in 2018, Austria, Brazil and Chile launched an initiative to negotiate a legally binding instrument to ensure human control over the critical functions of weapons. Also the Non-Aligned Movement called for a “legally binding international instrument stipulating prohibitions and regulations on lethal autonomous weapons systems”. However, a legally binding framework requires a strong convergence as the adoption of the CCW would have to be taken by consensus. During the last CCW preparatory meeting in August 2020, the United States have refused to negotiate a new protocol to CCW on killer robots arguing that the existing humanitarian law is adequate; Russia consistently opposed any proposals as it is not convinced that “lethal autonomous weapons will be a reality in the near future”. Due to this, the CCW so far only adopted political declarations, codes of conduct and “guiding principles”, which are not legally binding, to assist  member States’ decisions and deliberations on the use and development of autonomous weapons systems.  Alhtough the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the 2020 CWW meetings on killer robots,  member States were nevertheless invited to provide comments and suggestions on how  to find a common ground in regard to the different views on human control over weapons systems and the use of the force. In addition, the aim would be to lay the groundwork for a legally binding international instrument.

Concluding, HRW recommends the member States to the CCW to conclude negotiations on a new protocol to the CCW or on a new international treaty prohibiting independent weapons systems without  human control. It also urges the member States to adopt national policies committing them to retain meaningful human control over the use of force and to prohibit the production and the development of fully autonomous weapons.


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Author: Silvia Luminati


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