(Geneva) – Russia, the United States, and a handful of other nations investing in autonomous weapons are preventing efforts to start negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, Human Rights Watch said today.

More than 70 member countries of the Convention on Conventional Weapons will meet in Geneva on August 20 and 21, 2019 for their eighth meeting since 2014 to discuss concerns raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” But the Convention on Conventional Weapons’ “all talk, no action” approach indicates that it is incapable of dealing with this threat, Human Rights Watch said.

“Most governments want to negotiate a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, which coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “But with a small number of countries blocking any progress, these diplomatic talks increasingly look like an attempt to buy time and distract public attention rather than to urgently address the serious challenges raised by killer robots.”

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge states party to the convention to agree to begin negotiations in November for a new treaty to require meaningful human control over the use of force, which would effectively prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Only new international law can effectively address the multiple moral, legal, accountability, security, and technological concerns raised by killer robots.

The Convention on Conventional Weapons talks began in 2014 and were formalized three years later, but still have not produced anything more than some non-binding principles. Russia and the United States, as well as Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom, opposed calls to move to negotiate a new treaty at the last meeting on killer robots in March, calling such a move premature.

At the previous talks, almost all countries have called for retaining some form of human control over the use of force, which is effectively equivalent to a ban on weapons that lack such control. To date, 28 countries have explicitly supported a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons.

There is increasing evidence that developing these weapons would run contrary to the dictates of public conscience, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts, more than 20 Nobel Peace Laureates, and more than 160 religious leaders and organizations of various denominations also support a ban on killer robots. In 2018, Google released a set of ethical principles that includes a pledge not to develop artificial intelligence for use in weapons.

Killer robots would be unable to apply either compassion or nuanced legal and ethical judgment to decisions to use lethal forcce. Without these human qualities, the weapons would face significant obstacles in ensuring the humane treatment of others and showing respect for human life and dignity. 

According to international humanitarian law, the dictates of public conscience and principles of humanity should be upheld when there is no specific relevant treaty, which is the case with killer robots.

The 28 countries that have called for the ban are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, is a coalition of 112 nongovernmental organizations in 56 countries that is working to preemptively ban the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

“Both prohibitions and positive obligations are needed to ensure that systems that select and engage targets do not undermine ethical values and are always subject to meaningful human control,” Goose said. “The public expects greater efforts from governments to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons, before they proliferate widely – in fact, nothing less than a legally-binding ban treaty.”


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