The Complex

The campaign to ban killer robots is here

Human Rights Watch today fired the first salvo in its bid to establish an international ban on autonomous "killer robots." The NGO argues that the rapid push to field armed and autonomous robot planes, boats, and ground vehicles will place civilian lives at risk and make it easier for countries possessing such weapons to go ...

Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman

Human Rights Watch today fired the first salvo in its bid to establish an international ban on autonomous "killer robots."

The NGO argues that the rapid push to field armed and autonomous robot planes, boats, and ground vehicles will place civilian lives at risk and make it easier for countries possessing such weapons to go to war, while eroding the ability to punish war crimes.

"We believe these systems would not be able to comply with international humanitarian law standards and would pose unacceptable dangers to civilians during armed conflict. It would also create an accountability gap, as it would be unclear who should be held responsible for the inevitable violations of international humanitarian law that would occur," said Stephen Goose, executive director of arms programs at HRW, during a press conference today.

Human Rights Watch today fired the first salvo in its bid to establish an international ban on autonomous "killer robots."

The NGO argues that the rapid push to field armed and autonomous robot planes, boats, and ground vehicles will place civilian lives at risk and make it easier for countries possessing such weapons to go to war, while eroding the ability to punish war crimes.

"We believe these systems would not be able to comply with international humanitarian law standards and would pose unacceptable dangers to civilians during armed conflict. It would also create an accountability gap, as it would be unclear who should be held responsible for the inevitable violations of international humanitarian law that would occur," said Stephen Goose, executive director of arms programs at HRW, during a press conference today.

"Human Rights Watch is calling for a preemptive ban for the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons," said Goose, adding that governments should ban such weapons within their borders and then draft an international treaty barring autonomous "killer robots."

"We’re not opposing robotic developments. We’re not opposing the development of autonomous robots. What we’re opposing are robotic weapons systems that are fully automated," said Goose.

To that end, HRW is working with the Nobel Women’s Initiative to kick off an international effort to ban autonomous robots from the battlefield in the same way that blinding lasers were.

"We hope to launch the campaign in the first half of 2013. We’ve already had some preliminary meetings [with governments and other NGOs] and discussions on it, but the campaign would be exactly the same as put in this report; a preemptive ban as was carried out by Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross against blinding lasers back in 1996. It can be done," said Jody Williams of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Williams won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for her work as a founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines a project that helped bring about the international antipersonnel mine ban treaty that has been signed by 160 countries.

While HRW isn’t calling for the banning of armed drones that are under the direct control of a person, such a ban could apply to armed UAVs that are currently being designed to fly in semi-autonomous swarms, with one or two human operators controlling multiple aircraft, said Goose in response to Killer Apps’ questions.

"Governments will have to look at each weapon system individually, and each technology individually and circumstances of use individually and make determinations about whether they are compliant with international humanitarian law and about whether they pose excessive dangers to civilians," said Goose of semi-autonomous drones. "As we’ve seen with landmines and cluster munitions and blinding lasers and other weapons that have been banned, inevitably there are things that are on the margin, where it’s a tough call whether they should fall under the prohibition or not, and I have no doubt that that will be the case with this issue."

The U.S. Air Force and Navy are both working on technologies that could put stealthy, jet-powered armed drones with varying levels of autonomy into service in the next ten years. The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort aimed at fielding a — possibly autonomous — stealthy attack and spy jet capable of operating from aircraft carriers as soon as 2018 is perhaps the furthest along of these programs. The Air Force is even making its next heavy bomber "optionally manned," meaning that for missions that don’t involve nuclear weapons, humans may not be on board.

Many of these programs are aimed at dealing with high-end air and sea defenses being fielded by nations such as Russia, China, and Iran that are meant to keep the current crop of U.S. ships and planes at bay.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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