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Growing Momentum to Prevent Killer Robots

30 May 2013

Will machines one day take over and replace humans on the battlefield? Can such weapons that can select targets as well as use lethal force ever fully comply with International Humanitarian Law? Can they ever be more than rough approximations to humans regarding taking decisions in a highly complex environment of conflict? These were some of the many questions raised this week in the Human Rights Council (HRC) and at a side event organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – of which WILPF is a member.

killer robots

The main event this week took place on Thursday morning, when the Human Rights Council heard a summary of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions by Professor Heyns.

The report focuses on so called “lethal autonomous robotics” (LARs) and the multiple moral, ethical, legal, policy, technical, and other concerns such weapons raise from the perspective of the basic Human Rights of life and dignity.

Fully autonomous weapons are weapons that would unlike today’s drones no longer have a human in the loop. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched last month and calls to pre-emptively ban killer robots.

According to Professor Heyns, “war without reflection is mechanical slaughter”. These robotic systems can use all kinds of weapons that we can think of. According to Mr. Heyns, there is an urgent need of discussion and a “collective pause” before we allow LARs to be deployed to kill human beings worldwide.”

The United States, United Kingdom, Israel and South Korea have already deployed robot sentries, that are systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality. If these weapons are developed  with greater autonomy of movement and operation, there will be fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots” in combat. These weapons would select and attack targets without human control.

The presentation of the report at the Human Rights Council constituted the first opportunity for governments to raise this issue in a multilateral setting, and 24 states took the opportunity to discuss the report’s findings on autonomous weapons.  All of these states expressed interest and concern in the challenges posed by fully autonomous weapons. None opposed discussing it further.

However, in a typical Geneva-fashion, questions about appropriate fora and mandates were quickly raised.

Pakistan, Morocco, Mexico, Argentina (on behalf of GRULAC), Cuba, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Algeria, and Egypt raised deep concerns by future implications of such weapons and argue that these weapons could be discussed through the perspectives of both human rights and international humanitarian law. The European Union, several of its member states, United States and Brazil seemed more eager to define the issue in IHL and arms control terms. Brazil and France specifically proposed the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) as an appropriate body to deal with autonomous weapons.


The UK, however, said it considers that existing rules are sufficient on fully autonomous weapons and that it does not support an international ban. But as a press release from Article 36, a UK-based member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots noted, “it is meaningless and even disingenuous for the UK to say that existing rules are sufficient when there has been no public or parliamentary debate on autonomous weapons.”

Nevertheless, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, which rarely appears in the Human Rights Council, and Pakistan argued that there is no need to wait until the weapons are fully developed, and that autonomous weaons can be banned in a similar manner as blinding lasers were preemptively banned through the CCW in 1995. Several delegations supported the recommendation by Professor Heyns on a moratorium on fully autonomous weapons.

statement of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, delivered by WILPF as a member of the campaign’s steering group, urged “all states to endorse and commit to implement the report’s recommendations, including an immediate moratorium.” Through this campaign, WILPF argues that implementation of these recommendations should be seen as a first step towards a comprehensive international ban and called upon all states to articulate and publicize their policy on fully autonomous weapons.

Hardly ever has a multidimensional issue been taken up so widely in the Human Rights Council when mentioned for the first time. The interest from governments in this issue was significant and many states signalled that they are ready to think about how to deal with these weapons. It definitely showed that an international process on fully autonomous weapons could be possible.

The question is now how to move forward and which states are ready to start addressing autonomous weapons in the near future.

What do you think, should we wait for autonomous weapons to be developed before we act, or should we ban them now?

– By Anina Dalbert

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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