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Killer Robots: Urgent Need to Fast-Track Talks

Shared Vision Forms Sound Basis for Creating a New Ban Treaty

  • Governments should move urgently to begin negotiations on a new treaty to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons systems, known as “killer robots.”
  • A small number of powerful countries that are developing autonomous weapons have been holding up action on a treaty at international talks.
  • The many countries that oppose delegating life-and-death decisions to machines should adopt new international law to ensure human control and accountability in the use of force.  

(Washington, DC, August 2, 2021) – Governments should make up for lost time by moving urgently to begin negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Representatives from approximately 50 countries will convene on August 3, 2021 at the United Nations in Geneva for their first official diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots,” in nearly a year.

The 17-page report, “Areas of Alignment: Common Visions for a Killer Robots Treaty,” co-published by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, describes the strong objections to delegating life-and-death decisions to machines expressed by governments at the last official Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on killer robots. That meeting, held in September 2020, featured proposals from many countries to negotiate a new international treaty to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons.

“International law needs to be expanded to create new rules that ensure human control and accountability in the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Harvard Human Rights Clinic. “The fundamental moral, legal, and security concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems warrant a strong and urgent response in the form of a new international treaty.”

Nearly 100 countries have publicly expressed their views on killer robots since 2013. Most have repeatedly called for a new international treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, including 31 that have explicitly called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Yet a small number of militarily advanced countries – most notably Israel, Russia, and the United States – regard any move to create new international law as premature. They are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.

Governments have expressed support for banning autonomous systems that are legally or morally unacceptable, the groups said. There is strong interest in prohibiting weapons systems that by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control, including complex systems that use machine-learning algorithms to produce unpredictable or inexplicable effects. There are further calls to ban antipersonnel weapons systems that rely on profiles derived from biometric and other data collected by sensors to identify, select, and attack individuals or categories of people.

“Killing or injuring people based on data collected by sensors and processed by machines would violate human dignity,” Docherty said. “Relying on algorithms to target people will dehumanize warfare and erode our humanity.”

Many countries have proposed complementing these prohibitions with regulations to ensure that all other autonomous weapons systems are only used with meaningful human control, the groups said. “Meaningful human control” is widely understood to require that technology is understandable and predictable and that its operations are constrained in space and time.

An October 2020 report by Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic recommended elements for a new treaty on killer robots that largely align with the proposals made by countries that participated in the September 2020 meeting.   

Decisions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons are by consensus, which allows a few countries – or even a single country – to block an agreement sought by a majority. A new treaty, however, does not have to be negotiated under Convention on Conventional Weapons auspices, and there are signs that political leaders are anxious to move on and achieve a faster, more lasting result.

In July, New Zealand’s minister for disarmament and arms control, Phil Twyford, warned that the current diplomatic talks “are not delivering” and suggested those concerned by the prospect of autonomous weapons systems come together and “design something truly fit-for-purpose.” He added, “For many of us, the idea that a computer could autonomously identify and attack a target will be unconscionable.”

A broad range and growing number of countries, institutions, private companies, and individuals have reiterated their desire for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. In May, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for countries to negotiate an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapons systems that are unpredictable or target people and establish regulations to ensure human control over other systems. Since 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has urged states to prohibit weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, calling them “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.”

The 31 countries demanding a ban on killer robots are Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (on use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the coalition of more than 180 nongovernmental organizations in 67 countries that advocates for a treaty to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit weapons systems that operate without such control.

“It’s feasible and essential to draw the line now on problematic emerging technologies by negotiating a new international treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” Docherty said. “There should be no more delays.”

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