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Drive to Preemptively Ban ‘Killer Robots’ Gaining Traction

FILE - An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq.
FILE - An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq.

"The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots" is urging governments attending a U.N. conference to prevent the development of a lethal robotic system that holds the power of life or death without any human control.

Many of the 120 states that are part of the Convention on Conventional Weapons are participating in this week’s meeting of experts on “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

About two-thirds of the more than 30 countries that spoke at the opening session expressed a desire to maintain meaningful human control over the use and operation of weapons systems.

A number of countries called for a ban on autonomous weapons. Only the United States specifically said it was premature to consider a ban, and Britain and France were hesitant about enacting a new law.

But the director of the Article 36 group, Thomas Nash, said the opening debate was encouraging.

“It is an urgent problem, I would say. If you look at the proliferation of drones and the use of drones, it kind of popped up out of nowhere. And, now we are sort of fighting a rear guard action to try and get some control back over the operation of drone systems. We have an opportunity now to do something before we are facing that situation in relation to systems that can actually operate without human control in the release of weapons,” he said.

Article 36 is one of several groups that founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. This is because several weapons systems with various degrees of human control are in use by militaries including the United States, China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and Britain.

A Human Rights Watch report cites legal, ethical, technical, and operational concerns regarding weapons systems that could select and attack targets without human intervention. Report lead author Bonnie Doeherty said that without accountability, programmers, manufacturers, and military personnel could escape liability for unlawful deaths and injuries caused by fully autonomous weapons.

“Accountability for individuals is not a mere legal technicality. It has significant impact for victims and for society. If there is no accountability, there is no deterrent for future violations. There is no retribution for victims. There is no social, moral condemnation of an act,” said Doeherty.

Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams said it was critically important to stop killer robots in their tracks.

“It is as revolutionary as nuclear bombs, as gunpowder. It is a huge leap backward in our view morally and ethically. The United States and the United Kingdom would argue it is a huge leap forward,” she said.

Williams argued the development of killer robots was not inevitable. In 1995, she noted, nations preemptively outlawed blinding laser weapons under the U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons.