What are killer robots?
Killer Robots are fully autonomous weapons able to select and fire upon targets on their own, without any human intervention.
Differently from remote-controlled weapon systems such as drones – which are piloted by a human remotely – fully autonomous weapons would have no human control after being programmed.
They would be enabled to assess the situational context on a battlefield and to decide on the required attack according to the processed information.
Why is WILPF engaged?
While autonomy in technological systems is a feature of today’s world, the decision of weaponising these capabilities is not inevitable. The increasing autonomy of weapons systems is a major threat to compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
WILPF has serious concerns over the possible use of these technological developments. Due to this we joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to contribute to the provision of a coordinated civil society response to the multiple challenges that fully autonomous weapons pose to humanity.
Major issues raised by autonomous weapons
As pointed out by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in his report to the Human Rights Council, the removal of humans from the selection and execution of attacks on targets constitutes a critical moment in the new technology, which is considered as a “revolution in modern warfare”.
In the UN Special Rapporteur Heyns 2014 report, it is underlined that although this is “a disarmament issue, and needs to be addressed in that context, it also has far-reaching potential implications for human rights, notably the rights to life and human dignity, and as such it is also a human rights issue.”
The fact that machines could be programmed through algorithms to assess the situational context and select and engage targets output a decision on whether to select and kill targets or not – poses a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
By lacking the features of human intelligence, morality agency, and judgment that make humans subject and accountable to rules and norms (such as the assessment of proportionality, military necessity, and the capability to make distinctions between civilians and combatants), autonomous weapons raise the question whether or not human abilities can be transferred to machines.
Such technology also could increases the risk that states are more likely to engage in armed conflicts due to a reduced possibility of human military causalities.
What’s on the agenda?
Fully autonomous weapons emerged as an independent topic also during the meeting of states parties of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in November 2013, where governments decided to convene a four-day meeting of experts on the topic of fully autonomous weapons. The mandate is included in paragraph 32 of Final Report.
The CCW meeting on fully autonomous weapons took place from 13 to 16 May 2014, at the United Nations in Geneva. It represents the first multilateral talks on killer robots at the United Nations. A total of 87 out of the 117 states parties to the CCW attended the four-day Meeting of Experts in addition to representatives from international and UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, regional bodies, and registered non-governmental organisations.
A number of countries noted the relevance of international human rights law in their statements, including potential violations of human dignity. Experts in the field also expressed their doubts that fully autonomous weapons will ever possess human qualities, such as judgment, that facilitate compliance with human rights or IHL. Many countries seemed to coalesce around the idea of need for meaningful human control over the targeting and killing of human beings.
The CCW can be seen as an initial success, given the general agreement of states to further continue the discussion on fully autonomous weapons in November 2014. The next CCW meeting of State Parties will take place 13-14 November 2014 at the United Nations in Geneva.
However it was notable that the lack of any women experts in the formal agenda runs counter to the goal of gender equality in global policymaking on peace and security endorsed by WILPF and the UN Security Council Resolution 1325. In response, civil society is compiling a list of non-male experts for future reference as well as a list of those who identify as men that refuse to speak on male-only panels.
Wilpf on Killer Robots
WILPF urges all countries to consider and publicly elaborate their policy on fully autonomous weapons, particularly with respect to ethical, legal, policy, technical, and other concerns that have been raised in the UN Special Rapporteur Heyns 2013 report.
We call on countries to endorse the recommendations in the report, including the call for a moratorium on lethal autonomous robotics. All these recommendations are included in a statement to the HRC on May 2013 delivered by WILPF.
WILPF and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots encourage all delegations to support a renewed mandate in November for the CCW to create a formal Group of Government Experts on this topic in 2015, with a view to future negotiations of a new protocol.
We also call on the Human Rights Council to take action to ensure that the consequences on human rights of the development and use of fully autonomous weapons are taken into account.
For more details about the CCW meeting, visit Reaching Critical Will’s website.