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All countries have a duty to save humanity by retaining meaningful human control over the use of force and banning fully autonomous weapons.  © 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – A growing number of countries recognize a duty to save humanity from fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Weapons systems that select and engage targets without meaningful human control, known as killer robots, are unacceptable and need to be prevented.

The 55-page report, "Stopping Killer Robots: Country Positions on Banning Fully Autonomous Weapons and Retaining Human Control," reviews the policies of the 97 countries that have publicly elaborated their views on killer robots since 2013. The vast majority regard human control and decision-making as critical to the acceptability and legality of weapons systems. Most of these countries have expressed their desire for a new treaty to retain human control over the use of force, including 30 that explicitly seek to ban fully autonomous weapons.

"Removing human control from the use of force is now widely regarded as a grave threat to humanity that, like climate change, deserves urgent multilateral action," said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “An international ban treaty is the only effective way to deal with the serious challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons.”

Since Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations began the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in 2013, the need to respond to concerns over lethal autonomous weapons systems, another term for fully autonomous weapons, has steadily climbed the international agenda.

A growing number of policymakers, artificial intelligence experts, private companies, international and domestic organizations, and ordinary individuals have endorsed the call to ban fully autonomous weapons. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly urged countries to prohibit weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, calling such weapons “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable.”

“It’s abundantly clear that retaining meaningful human control over the use of force is an ethical imperative, a legal necessity, and a moral obligation,” Wareham said. “All countries need to respond with urgency by opening negotiations on a new international ban treaty.”

Nations have participated in the eight Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems from 2014 to 2019. Austria, Brazil, and Chile have proposed negotiations on a legally binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over the critical functions of weapons systems.

Yet, a small number of military powers – most notably Russia and the United States – have blocked progress towards regulation, while they also invest heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems. Decisions at the CCW are by consensus, which allows just a few or even a single country to block an agreement sought by a majority.

The Covid-19 pandemic has now forced the postponement of the first 2020 CCW meeting on killer robots, which was supposed to open at the UN in Geneva on August 10.

The 30 countries calling for a ban on killer robots are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a coalition of more than 160 nongovernmental organizations in 65 countries that is working to preemptively ban fully autonomous weapons and retain meaningful human control over the use of force.

“Many governments share the same serious concerns over permitting machines to take human life on the battlefield, and their desire for human control provides a sound basis for collective action,” Wareham said. “While the pandemic has delayed diplomacy, it shows the importance of being prepared and responding with urgency to existential threats to humanity, such as killer robots.”

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