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‘Killer Robots’ Debate Hits the Small Screen

Madam Secretary Grapples with Dilemmas Posed by Fully Autonomous Weapons

Photo from an episode of Madam Secretary that aired on CBS on October 20, 2019. © 2019 Mark Schafer/CBS All Rights Reserved

One of my favorite TV shows, Madam Secretary, aired an episode on Sunday focusing on “killer robots” or fully autonomous weapons, an issue Human Rights Watch has worked on since 2012.

It was heartening to see a mainstream entertainment show highlight something we’ve been pushing as an urgent issue: killer robots pose a huge threat to human rights and can never – ever – be justified, even, as in this episode of Madam Secretary, during times of war.

In June, Human Rights Watch staffers Mary Wareham and Steve Goose were invited to visit script writers for the show.

In the episode, United States President Elizabeth McCord grapples with the ethical ramifications of using fully autonomous weapons in warfare, ultimately deciding to deploy a Navy SEAL team instead to capture the mastermind behind the attack on the United Nations that closed out the previous season.

Human Rights Watch Arms division Executive Director Steve Goose (third from right) and Advocacy Director Mary Wareham (fourth from left) and the writing team of CBS' Madam Secretary.  © 2019 Mark Schafer/CBS All Rights Reserved

Through debates McCord has with her advisers in the Situation Room and in the Oval Office, the episode illustrates ethical, legal, and accountability concerns of the use of fully autonomous weapons.

There are serious doubts that fully autonomous weapons would be capable of meeting international humanitarian law requirements, which ban attacks that are indiscriminate or cause disproportionate civilian loss, or that they would be able to recognize when an enemy has surrendered – or, as McCord says in the show, “look a grieving parent in the eye.”

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are working to get a pre-emptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. So far, 29 countries have explicitly called for a ban.

In the episode, McCord uses the incident as a diplomatic opportunity to convince the US, China, and Russia to agree to a fully autonomous weapons ban. In reality, China supports a ban only on the use of fully autonomous weapons, but not their development or production. The US and Russia, along with a handful of other nations investing in fully autonomous weapons, prevented negotiations on a new treaty at the last Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting in August.

Only a new international treaty can effectively address the threat raised by killer robots to the fundamental right to life and the principle of human dignity. As McCord says in her Oval Office address to the nation, “The one aspect of warfare that safeguards our survival is meaningful human control.”

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