UN: Decisive action needed to ban killer robots - before it’s too late

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31 Aug 2018
[International Secretariat]
Topic: Arms Trade Treaty

As rapid technological advances bring “killer robots” ever closer to reality, Amnesty International is calling on states to support the negotiation of new international law to ban fully autonomous weapons systems.

The Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems will meet in Geneva between 27 and 31 August 2018. The meeting is a key moment for states to discuss options for addressing the human rights, humanitarian, ethical and security challenges posed by fully autonomous weapons systems.

“Killer robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. From artificially intelligent drones to automated guns that can choose their own targets, technological advances in weaponry are far outpacing international law. We are sliding towards a future where humans could be erased from decision-making around the use of force,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, Researcher/Advisor on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights at Amnesty International.

“It’s not too late to change course. A ban on fully autonomous weapons systems could prevent some truly dystopian scenarios, like a new high-tech arms race between world superpowers which would cause autonomous weapons to proliferate widely. We are calling on states present in Geneva this week to act with the urgency this issue demands, and come up with an ambitious mandate to address the numerous risks posed by autonomous weapons.”

The majority of states at the last CCW meeting in April 2018 emphasized the importance of retaining human control over weapons systems and the use of force, and expressed support for developing new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Twenty-six of these called for a total ban, including Austria, Brazil and Egypt. China has also called for a new CCW protocol to prohibit the use of fully autonomous weapons systems.

But a number of key states oppose creating legally binding prohibitions, including governments who are already known to be developing autonomous weapons systems, such as France, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the USA and UK.

Amnesty International is calling for the creation of legally-binding standards to ensure that humans remain at the core of ‘critical functions’ of weapons systems such as the identification, selection and engagement of targets. Only this can ensure respect for international law and address ethical concerns regarding delegating the power to make life-and-death decisions to machines.

These issues have been discussed in previous CCW sessions in the context of using these systems in warfare. Amnesty International is calling on states to ensure that they also address the risks of using autonomous weapons in law enforcement.

“So far, the likelihood that autonomous weapons will be used in police operations, with all the risks that entails, has been largely overlooked. But drones capable of shooting electric-shock darts, tear gas and pepperball already exist. Israel recently deployed semi-autonomous drones to fire tear gas at protesters in Gaza, and we are likely to see more use by law enforcement agencies of this kind of technology in future,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim.

“The use of fully autonomous weapons in law enforcement without effective and meaningful human control would be incompatible with international human rights law, and could lead to unlawful killings, injuries and other violations of human rights. We are calling on states to take concrete steps to halt the spread of these dangerous weapons, both on the streets and on the battlefield, before it’s too late.”


Amnesty International and its partners in the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are calling for a total ban on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapon systems, in light of the human rights and humanitarian risks they pose. The use of fully autonomous weapons without meaningful and effective human control could appear to create an accountability gap if, once deployed, they are able to make their own determinations about the use of lethal force.

Although it is unclear how sophisticated future technologies will be, it is very unlikely that fully autonomous weapons systems would be able to replicate the full range of inherently human characteristics necessary to comply with international law.  This includes the ability to analyse the intentions behind people’s actions, to assess and respond to often dynamic and unpredictable situations, or make complex decisions about the proportionality or necessity of an attack.

States will meet again in November for the CCW Meeting of High Contracting Parties and will have the opportunity to agree to begin negotiations on a legally-binding instrument.

27 August 2018