‘A threat to humanity’, NGOs and activists call for a ban on the use of ‘killer robots’

By Alasdair Sandford
 & Josephine Joly

People take part in a demonstration as part of the campaign “Stop Killer Robots” organised by German NGO “Facing Finance” in Berlin, on March 21, 2019.


NGOs and activists have called for a ban on the use of autonomous weapons that are no longer strictly controlled by human hands, calling the so-called “killer robots” a “threat to humanity”.

The move comes as the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) takes place in Geneva this week, chaired by ambassador Yann Hwang of France.

Member states are expected to decide whether to negotiate a treaty that prohibits the use of weapons that are not decisively controlled by human hands.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a new treaty to clarify and strengthen existing laws related to these new technologies, adding that “the emergence of autonomous weapons systems and the prospect of losing meaningful human control over the use of force are grave threats that demand urgent action”.

“These are weapons systems that would operate without meaningful human control. That is, instead of a human, you would have the weapon system itself that would select the target and decide when to pull the trigger. You would not have humans performing these functions, instead, artificial intelligence would replace the soldier on the battlefield,” explained Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division.

“We think this crosses a moral line. We have moral and ethical questions about this, we have legal questions, we have international security destabilisation questions. There are so many reasons why a killer robot should never come into existence and any one of these aspects deserves a ban, a pre-emptive ban. These are weapons that are still under development. We have a chance to stop them in their tracks,” Goose told Euronews.

Despite a majority of nations being in favour of a new treaty on this issue, arms manufacturers such as the United States, Russia, China, Israel and India are strongly against the ban.

“Not coincidentally, these are the same countries that are the farthest along in developing killer robots,” Goose revealed.

Since 2018, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly urged states to prohibit weapons systems that could, by themselves, target and attack human beings, calling them “morally repugnant and politically unacceptable”.

Last year, HRW released a report showing how 97 countries have responded to this challenge and elaborated their views on lethal autonomous weapons systems since the matter was first discussed at the Human Rights Council in 2013.

The report surveys where these countries stand on calls to ban fully autonomous weapons and retain meaningful human control over the use of force.

However, according to Steve Goose, the CCW has made “very little progress” since it started discussing this concern in 2014.

“Largely because of these holdouts who don’t want to see movement towards a legally binding instrument. But the CCW is not the only avenue for pursuing legal regulations on these future weapons. With landmines, with cluster munitions, we saw nations go outside of the United Nations and bring together a powerful group of countries to prohibit the weapons in their entirety. The same step could be taken for killer robots,” he went on.

Watch the full interview with Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division director Steve Goose in the video player above.

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Alasdair Sandford