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Ringing the Alarm on Killer Robots

The International Community Should Launch Negotiations to Ban the Weapons

A Campaign to Stop Killer Robots publication on possible treaty elements.  © 2019 Human Rights Watch

Major military powers are racing to embrace weapons that select and fire on targets without meaningful human control. This is raising the specter of immoral, unaccountable, largely uncontrollable weapon systems – killer robots. It is also driving fears of widespread proliferation and arms races leading to global and regional instability.

There is increasing recognition that it’s time to ring the alarm on these weapons systems. This month in Paris, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a new international treaty to ban killer robots, stating that “machines that have the power and discretion to kill without human intervention are politically unacceptable and morally despicable.”

Yet at last week’s meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the UN in Geneva, states made no progress towards launching negotiations on a treaty to ban or restrict such fully autonomous weapons. Instead, they agreed to spend the next two years developing a “normative and operational framework” to address concerns raised by such weapons systems.

This vague objective falls far short of what’s needed. Dozens of countries wish to negotiate a treaty to retain human control over the use of force, including 30 states that want a treaty banning killer robots. Yet, a handful of military powers, most notably Russia and the United States, block any movement in the direction of a legally binding instrument.

Geopolitics were on stark display at the CCW meeting. The US was mostly silent. Russia both dominated the discussions and attempted to exclude civil society from key sessions. China is playing both sides of the issue. Although it reiterated its desire to negotiate a treaty around the weapons systems, China is also among the nations most advanced in pursuing such weapons.

The next CCW meeting on killer robots will take place in six months. Meanwhile, other initiatives are working to build support for a treaty to ban killer robots. Brazil will hold a symposium on killer robots in Rio de Janiero next February, while the advocacy group, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, will meet in Buenos Aires at the end of that month.

Within less than a decade, the killer robots have become one of the most pressing threats to humanity. There are signs that the public strongly supports regulation now. The only appropriate response is to launch negotiations to ban killer robots.

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