Killer Robots and the Human Rights Council

In April 2013 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Christof Heyns, released a report on so called “lethal autonomous robotics” (LARs).

After examining the multiple moral, ethical, legal, policy, technical, and other concerns such weapons raise from the perspective of the basic Human Rights of life and dignity, the report calls for a global moratorium on LARs.

According to Professor Heyns, “war without reflection is mechanical slaughter”. These robotic systems can use all kinds of weapons that we can think of. According to Mr. Heyns, there is an urgent need of discussion and a “collective pause” before we allow LARs to be deployed to kill human beings worldwide.”

Facebook imageThe presentation of the report at the Human Rights Council (29 May 2013) constituted the first opportunity for governments to raise this issue in a multilateral setting. All of the 24 states that discussed the report’s findings expressed interest and concern in the challenges posed by fully autonomous weapons and none opposed discussing it further. However, in a typical Geneva-fashion, questions about appropriate fora and mandates were quickly raised.

Pakistan, Morocco, Mexico, Argentina (on behalf of GRULAC), Cuba, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Algeria, and Egypt raised deep concerns by future implications of such weapons and argue that these weapons could be discussed through the perspectives of both human rights and international humanitarian law. The European Union, several of its member states, United States and Brazil seemed more eager to define the issue in IHL and arms control terms. Brazil and France specifically proposed the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) as an appropriate body to deal with autonomous weapons.

The UK, however, said it considers that existing rules are sufficient on fully autonomous weapons and that it does not support an international ban. However, as a press release from Article 36, a UK-based member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots noted, “it is meaningless and even disingenuous for the UK to say that existing rules are sufficient when there has been no public or parliamentary debate on autonomous weapons.”

Nevertheless, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, which rarely appears in the Human Rights Council, and Pakistan argued that there is no need to wait until the weapons are fully developed, and that autonomous weapons can be banned in a similar manner as blinding lasers were preemptively banned through the CCW in 1995. Several delegations supported the recommendation by Professor Heyns on a moratorium on fully autonomous weapons.

WILPF delivered a statement on behalf of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urging “all states to endorse and commit to implement the report’s recommendations, including an immediate moratorium.” The statement also point out that implementation of these recommendations should be seen as a first step towards a comprehensive international ban and called upon all states to articulate and publicize their policy on fully autonomous weapons.

Hardly ever has a multidimensional issue been taken up so widely in the Human Rights Council when mentioned for the first time. The interest from governments in this issue was significant and many states signaled that they are ready to think about how to deal with these weapons. It definitely showed that an international process on fully autonomous weapons can be possible.

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