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KILLER ROBOTS make their way to the Human Rights Council

June 16, 2014

Last month, nations discussed the emerging challenges pose by the increased autonomy of weaponry systems at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), while this month the matter is being considered by the 26th session of the Human Rights Council with the presentation of a new report by Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

WILPF hosted a briefing on behalf of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to make sure that the Human Rights Council is informed on the discussion that took place during the CCW – which is an instrument of international humanitarian law that applies only to armed conflict – and to reflect on why it is important that killer robots is on the human rights agenda, as Human Rights are to be respected and protected both during armed conflict and peacetime.

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Beatrice Fihn of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) moderated a panel, featuring remarks byAmbassador Simon-Michel of France, chair of the CCW, Professor Heyns, Kathleen Lawand from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Richard Moyes of Article 36, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots together with WILPF.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE CCW DEBATE

During the CCW a number of countries noted the relevance of international human rights law in their statements, including Croatia, Egypt, the Holy Sea, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Brazil commented that the CCW process on autonomous weapons shouldn’t preclude other UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, from taking action in accordance with their mandates.

Ambassador Simon-Michel of France, presented an overview of the main topics discussed during the Informal Meeting, pointing out how the overall discussion over technical aspects – particularly related to the distinction between automatism and autonomy in weapons systems – was first tabled in order to better frame the concerns on ethical, sociological and operational dimensions.

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.

WHY ARE HUMAN RIGHTS RELEVANT?

The UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns observed that the discussion on killer robots should begin by reflecting on what he believes is most at stake with these weaponry systems: the use of force in connection with machines’ autonomous decisions. As he previously noted during the CCW, decisions taken by machines are inherently inhuman.

Moreover, killer robots have far-reaching potential implications for human rights, as their use would threaten to violate the most fundamental rights, such as the right to life, the right to remedy and the underlying principle of human dignity. These are not to mention the right to security, or the socio-economic rights that can be indirectly affected by the threat of killer robots attacks.

THE NOTION OF MEANINGFUL HUMAN CONTROL: A BENCHMARK FOR THE WAY AHEAD 

Richard Moyes from Article 36, co-funder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, focused his intervention on ‘meaningful human control’, a key concept that arose during the CCW discussion.

The idea of meaningful human control over life and death decisions involves more than the mindless pressing of a button in response to machine-processed information. Targets being represented in data and analyzed by sensors lead to the question: how much human judgment can be transferred into a technical system before human control ceases to be meaningful?

As International Humanitarian Law is based on the responsibility of human agents, it is crucial that human control on individual attacks is maintained. To be sure, the control exercised by a person in a ‘dark room’ is not a meaningful level of human control.

Many delegations reported in their statements to the CCW that the notion of meaningful human control could be useful to address the question of autonomy, while others said this concept requires further study. No one openly rejected it.

As ICRC concluded the meeting, the vagueness of the concept only highlights the necessity to further explore it. WILPF and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believe that it is vital to continue the discussion with a clear reference to the notion of human control, as it could provide a basis for prohibiting weapons where this control is not possible.

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