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Why No Sense of Urgency on ‘Killer Robots?’

Progress Sluggish at Key UN Meeting on Fully Autonomous Weapons

© 2012 Russell Christian for Human Rights Watch

It isn’t often that the international community comes together to act preventatively on matters relating to warfare.

So there was a flurry of media coverage earlier this month when representatives from more than 80 countries met at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss what to do about fully autonomous weapons. Often known as “killer robots,” the central concern is that these weapons would be able to select and attack targets without meaningful human control.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots warns of the perils of allowing machines to take a human life, be it on the battlefield or in a law enforcement situation, and is calling for a ban on such weapons due to serious ethical, legal, operational, and technical concerns.

But dedicating just a few days per year to discuss killer robots is not enough when countries with high-tech militaries are spending significant funds developing weapons with ever-decreasing levels of human control. Left unchecked, there is a growing risk of a global arms race with devastating consequences for security, and even our very humanity.

At the UN meeting, it became clear that most states want to start negotiating new international law on autonomous weapon systems. This includes 22 countries that want to preemptively ban such weapons before they are developed, let alone used.

Not all countries were present, though: Denmark was noticeably absent from the UN meeting despite its previous affirmation of the need for weapons to, “remain under ‘meaningful human control.’”

This absence shows the need for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to increase public awareness and build political support for taking swift action. This is why I have come to Copenhagen this week to address a seminar on, “the politics of lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

Instead of sitting on the sidelines, Denmark should start actively participating in the diplomatic talks on killer robots and make explicit where it draws the line in increasing autonomy in weapon systems.

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