Killer Robots: Precedent for a Ban Treaty

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Following the lead of legal precedent, a new treaty on killer robots should ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and ban weapons operating without such control. 
© 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

Following the lead of legal precedent, a new treaty on killer robots should ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and ban weapons operating without such control.  © 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – A treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” is essential and achievable, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 25-page report, “New Weapons, Proven Precedent: Elements of and Models for a Treaty on Killer Robots,” outlines key elements for a future treaty to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit weapons systems that operate without such control. It should consist of both positive obligations and prohibitions as well as elaborate on the components of “meaningful human control.” 

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and needs to be strengthened to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, which coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “A new international treaty is the only effective way to prevent the delegation of life-and-death decisions to machines.”

The report was co-published with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, for which Docherty is associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection.

While many countries have voiced support for a new international treaty on fully autonomous weapons, there is some trepidation over how to handle the cutting-edge and rapidly changing nature of these weapons and concern that it will complicate negotiations.

The report seeks to allay these concerns by identifying legal and policy precedent for each of the proposed treaty elements.

“Killer robots present distinctive challenges but constructing a new treaty does not require starting from scratch,” Docherty said. “Existing international law and principles of artificial intelligence provide ample precedent showing that it is legally, politically, and practically possible to develop a new treaty on killer robots.”

Nearly 100 countries have publicly expressed their views on killer robots since 2013, primarily in talks under the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major disarmament treaty. The last CCW meeting, in September 2020, looked at how human control and decision-making are critical to the acceptability and legality of weapons systems. During the meeting, many countries and groups of countries expressed their strong interest in negotiating a new international treaty. Thirty countries have explicitly called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons.

A small number of militarily advanced countries – most notably France, India, Israel, The Netherlands, and the United States – have called any move to create a new treaty “premature.” These nations are investing 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 a few countries – or even a single country – to block an agreement sought by a majority. A new treaty, however, does not have to be negotiated under CCW auspices.

More than 60 governments will convene at the next CCW meeting at the United Nations in Geneva from November 2 to 5, the tenth since 2014 on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

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

“There’s no time to waste when it comes to preventing development of fully autonomous weapons,” Docherty said. “It’s crucial for governments to begin negotiations and swiftly adopt a new international ban treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force.”