Killer robots: the current situation

During the Human Rights Council session 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.”

In the same month, a group of non-governmental organisations launched the Campaign to stop Killer Robots. The campaign seeks to establish a coordinated civil society call for a ban on the development of autonomous weapons systems, and to address the threats to civilians and challenges to international law posed by these weapons. Such a treaty would include the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling, and deployment of autonomous weapons.

Autonomous weapons emerged as an independent topic 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. Held in Geneva from 13-16 May 2014, this meeting represented an opportunity for states to discuss the crucial issues related to the technical, legal, moral, and ethical dimensions of autonomous weapons. This discussion highlighted concerns that autonomous weapons would not be able to comply with the basic principles of IHL (distinction and proportionality) and that meaningful human control is necessary for any use of force. For this reason, several governments—and civil society—highlighted the importance of acting pre-emptively.

In June 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur presented his 2014 Report to the Human Rights Council, part of which addressed emerging autonomous weapons systems. He highlighted the development of the issue since his April 2013 report and reiterated his call on states to impose moratoria on the development and use of autonomous weapons, both in armed conflict and law enforcement contexts.

Two informal CCW Meetings of Experts on LAWS have been held, with the first in 2014 and the second in 2015. At these meetings delegations highlighted their concerns and perspectives on ways forward, covering issues such as meaningful human control, possible prohibitions and restrictions, and article 36 reviews of new weapons. The third meeting of experts on LAWS will take place from 11-15 April 2016, ahead of a milestone five-year Review Conference of the CCW at the end of the year.

For more information on the meeting, visit RCW’s website here.

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