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Ambassador Eileen C. Donahoe

US Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council

Route de Pregny 11
1292 Chambésy

Geneva, Switzerland


Dear Ambassador Donahoe,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch, a founding member of an international coalition of civil society groups working to ban lethal robotic weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention. The prohibition should be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures, to enshrine the principle that decisions to use lethal force against a human being must always be made by a human being.

In this regard, we would like to draw your attention to a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Christof Heyns, dated April 9, 2013 and available on the website of the United Nations Human Rights Council at: This report is scheduled to be delivered to the Council on May 29 during its second session.

We welcome this report and concur with its finding that lethal autonomous robotics (LARs):

[R]aise far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace. This includes the question of the extent to which they can be programmed to comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law and the standards protecting life under international human rights law. Beyond this, their deployment may be unacceptable because no adequate system of legal accountability can be devised, and because robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings.

We are encouraged that the US Department of Defense has already established a public policy on autonomy in weapons systems through Directive 3000.09, issued in November 2012. The Directive is a positive step, reaffirming current US policy that there should always be a human being “in the loop” when decisions to use lethal force are made.  The Directive may expire after 5 years, however, and can be waived by high-level Department of Defense officials. The policy of self-restraint it embraces may also be hard to sustain if other nations begin to deploy fully autonomous weapons systems.  It is therefore in the US interest to encourage the development of global standards to prohibit these kinds of weapons. 

For this reason, we call on the United States to welcome the Heyns report on lethal autonomous robotics and endorse its four recommendations, which in effect urge all states to take steps similar to those the United States is already committing to take: 

  1. Place a national moratorium on lethal autonomous robotics. (Paragraph 118)
  2. Declare – unilaterally and through multilateral fora – a commitment to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law in all activities surrounding robotic weapons and put in place and implement rigorous processes to ensure compliance at all stages of development. (Paragraph 119)
  3. Commit to being as transparent as possible about internal weapons review processes, including metrics used to test robotic systems. States should at a minimum provide the international community with transparency regarding the processes they follow (if not the substantive outcomes) and commit to making the reviews as robust as possible. (Paragraph 120)
  4. Participate in international debate and trans-governmental dialogue on the issue of lethal autonomous robotics and be prepared to exchange best practices with other States, and collaborate with the High Level Panel on lethal autonomous robotics. (Paragraph 121)

We look forward to hearing from you and welcome the opportunity to discuss this important topic further.




Mary Wareham

Advocacy Director, Arms Division, Human Rights Watch

Global Coordinator, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

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