Killer robots

A killer robot holding a rifle A killer robot holding a rifle © Photo by Dreamstime

What are killer robots?

Although there's reluctance to pin down a single definition, the most used term for lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWSs) originated in a 2012 US Department of Defense (DOD) directive on autonomous weapon systems. The document defined a weapon as fully autonomous if, when activated, it “can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.”

The majority of NGOs actively participating in the disarmament process, including the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Article 36, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), adhere to functionally similar definitions. All organizations listed so far are members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR), which has been the leading advocate in this space since 2012.

Precursors to these weapons, such as armed drones, are being developed and deployed by nations including China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.


How are they affecting civilians? 

As written in a 2012 report entitled “Losing Humanity-The Case against Killer Robots” , Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) believe that such revolutionary weapons would not be consistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict, therefore although no accident has been recorded so far, a preemptive prohibition on their development and use is needed. The effects of their precursors are more than evident, with drones capable of bombing entire sites. 


What’s the international community doing about them?

Not many laws exist to constrain the use of killer robots. At international level, no law or policy deals specifically with LAWS or other automated systems. However, since this technology will be used by the military to kill, certain international rules and rights apply that restrict all weapons of war; like any weapon, these technologies are governed by the laws of war and the use of force, which state that no weapon can be used to kill civilians indiscriminately or without a clear military objective behind the strike. However, experts stress that LAWS may lower the threshold to conflict and cannot be guaranteed to accurately discriminate civilians from soldiers, so the laws of war and use of force rules do not adequately address the threat that LAWS pose.




Author: Benedetta Spizzichino; Editor: Francesca Mencuccini

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