Since the first UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions report addressing autonomous weapons was published in April 2013, much of the debate has focused on these weapons’ potential role in armed conflict, raising questions over whether the weapons would be able to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL) and respect human rights. During the expert meeting at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in May 2014, specialists in the fields of robotics, law, and philosophy expressed their doubts about the prospect that fully autonomous weapons will ever possess human qualities, such as judgment, that facilitate compliance with human rights or IHL. Such weapons would also undermine human dignity, asinanimate machines could not understand or respect the value of life, yet would have the power to determine when to take it away.

In the past months, an increased concern and focus on the possible consequences on human rights of the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons also outside conflict situations have taken shape.

Killer Robots in law-enforcement situations

At the side event organized by WILPF, hosted on behalf of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Professor Heyns stressed the need to comprehensively discuss increased autonomy in weaponry systems. He suggested enlarging the debate in order to address all possible situations in which the use of force could be decided by machines. In this sense, the discourse over the relevance of international human rights law (IHRL) should be framed in a continuum from fully autonomous lethal weapons in and outside conflicts to less-lethal autonomous weapons to be used in law-enforcement contexts (deploying weapons such as tear gas or electrical shock).

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

According to Heyns, IHRL could fill the gap in three possible situations in which IHL does not apply. In conflict, IHRL addresses the demands for the right to dignity, including those of combatants. Second, in law enforcement contexts, the right to security responds to the threat caused by the use of less-lethal weapons. Finally, IHRL is relevant to all those situations under the threshold of armed conflict, such as counter-terrorism operations.

The prevention of human rights violations lies within the mandate of the HRC and therefore it is a relevant forum to evaluate the compatibility of the development, production and use of these weapons with Human Rights. Other fora would have to take this resolution into account and regulate consequently. If killer robots are incompatible with human rights, other fora will have to proceed to its banning.

States’ responses

Also speaking at WILPF’s side event, Kathleen Lawand from the International Committee of the Red Cross remarked that the advent of these weapons will have profound implications for humanity. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the HRC to respond to both present and future threats to all human rights.

However, out of the 32 states taking the floor during the general debate following Heyns’ presentation, only nine speakers (Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Pakistan, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States) referred to autonomous weapons systems in their statements.

Cuba welcomed the attention the Special Rapporteur attributed to the broad issue of autonomous weapons systems and Brazil, the OIC, and Pakistan agreed that the Council should remain seized with the issue, in accordance with Heyns’ recommendation.

Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, on the other hand, argued that autonomous weapons as well as other weapons issues should be confined to the UN disarmament fora, such as the CCW. Both China and Russia expressed their interest in the discussions, but did not specify their positions on the matter of forum.

Future discussions

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes that there must not be any weapons without meaningful human control and an international prohibition on fully autonomous weapons is the most practical way to ensure this end.

On 26 June, the Human Right Council approved the renewal of Heynes’ mandate for another three years. We hope his attention for killer robots will continue, given that the mandate explicitly calls for him to “continue to examine situations … where early action might prevent further deterioration.”

We believe that lawfulness of weapons is to be addressed by all the existing bodies of law. For this reason, WILPF and the Campaign call on the HRC to take action to ensure that the consequences on human rights of the development and use of fully autonomous weapons is taken into account. We encourage all delegations to support a renewed mandate in November for the CCW to create a formal Group of Government Experts on this topic in 2015, with a view to future negotiations of a new protocol.