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‘Killer Robots:’ Ban Treaty Is the Only Credible Solution

New International Law Is Essential to Retain Human Control Over Use of Force

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots stands outside the United Nations in New York during the General Assembly in 2018.  © 2018 Clare Conboy

(New York) – France, Germany, and other nations that are committed to a rules-based international order should begin negotiations on a new international treaty to ban preemptively lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or killer robots.

On September 26, 2019, foreign ministers from France, Germany, and dozens of other countries endorsed a declaration at the United Nations addressing lethal autonomous weapons systems.

“This declaration is yet another step down the path leading to the inevitable treaty that’s needed to prevent a grim future of killing by machine,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “If these political leaders are really serious about tackling the killer robots threat, then they should open negotiations on a treaty to ban them and require meaningful human control over weapons systems and the use of force.”

The foreign ministers participating in the “Alliance for Multilateralism” initiative that France and Germany spearheaded share the common goal of promoting a “rules-based international order” and have committed to address killer robots along with climate change and four other “politically relevant” issues. The political declaration endorsed during the annual opening of the UN General Assembly in New York marks the first time such a high-level group has acknowledged the killer robots threat.

The killer robots declaration shows that efforts to tackle this urgent challenge are swiftly ascending the multilateral agenda, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2014, more than 90 countries have met eight times at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to discuss concerns raised by killer robots. Most of the participating nations wish to negotiate a new treaty with prohibitions and restrictions in order to retain meaningful human control over the use of force. Yet, a small number of military powers – most notably Russia and the United States – have blocked progress toward that objective. As a result, while the talks were formalized in 2016, they still have not produced a credible outcome.

At the last CCW meeting in August 2019, Russia and the United States again opposed proposals to negotiate a new treaty on killer robots, calling such a move “premature.”

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge states party to the convention to agree in November to begin negotiations next year on a new treaty that requires meaningful human control over the use of force, which would effectively prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Only a new international law can effectively address the multiple ethical, moral, legal, accountability, security, and technological concerns raised by killer robots, Human Rights Watch said.

A total of 29 countries have explicitly called for a ban on killer robots: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (on use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

The new political declaration on killer robots is unambitious as it falls far short of the new international ban treaty sought by so many. It is ambiguous as it endorses a goal discussed at the Convention on Conventional Weapons of “developing a normative framework,” but there is little agreement among countries about what that means in practice. Some countries view such a framework as guidelines that would not amend existing international law, while others regard it as a new international treaty to prohibit or restrict lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, is a coalition of 118 nongovernmental organizations in 59 countries that is working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons and require meaningful human control over the use of force.

“It’s obvious that a new treaty to prevent killer robots is desperately needed to ensure a successful rules-based international order,” Wareham said. “Pressure to regulate will intensify the longer it takes nations to commit to negotiate the killer robots treaty.”

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