The development of fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” and the proposal to ban them preemptively have sparked impassioned debate at the international and national levels. Experts—including lawyers, ethicists, military specialists, human rights advocates, and scientists—have argued about the legality and desirability of the weapons in official diplomatic meetings, at conferences around the world, in academic journals, and on the Internet. In May 2014, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will convene in Geneva for the latest foray into the issue, a four-day experts’ meeting on what CCW states call “lethal autonomous weapons systems.” This paper seeks to advance the discussions about fully autonomous weapons by elaborating on the call for a ban and addressing head on the main arguments against such a ban.

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Fully autonomous weapons, once deployed, would be able to select and fire on targets without meaningful human involvement. Although they do not yet exist, the development of precursors and military planning documents indicate that technology is moving rapidly in that direction.

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) have contributed to the global discussion with a series of papers arguing for a ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. In November 2012, we released Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, the first major civil society report on the topic. We subsequently expanded our arguments in other publications, including an analysis of the US Department of Defense’s directive on autonomous weapons, a Q&A document on fully autonomous weapons, a memorandum on the need for new law to ban these weapons, and a report on the human rights implications of the weapons.1

Human Rights Watch and IHRC are calling on governments to:

  • Work toward an international instrument prohibiting the development, production, and use of the fully autonomous weapons.
  • Develop national policies on the issue, which encompass national moratoria on the development, production, and use of the fully autonomous weapons.
  • Agree in November 2014 to expand CCW discussions in a more formal group of governmental experts next year, with an eye ultimately to negotiating a protocol on the weapons.

Our reports on fully autonomous weapons are part of a growing movement against the weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) coordinated by Human Rights Watch, has led civil society’s efforts to ban the weapons. It currently has 51 member organizations from 24 countries. Other experts, including Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, have also expressed serious concerns about the legal and moral implications of these weapons.

At the same time, critics of the campaign’s position have defended the proposed technology and challenged the call for a preemptive prohibition. This paper responds directly to those critics by examining and rebutting 12 of their claims. In so doing, it seeks to add depth and nuance to the case against these weapons. 

The paper is divided into 12 sections, each providing a response to a particular claim or argument that critics of a preemptive ban have made.