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Issue #1682      April 29, 2015

UN: Ban killer robots

Governments must ban any further development of killer robots whose insidious creep into policing would put lives at risk and pose a serious threat to human rights, Amnesty International said as it launched a new briefing in Geneva.

Speaking at a meeting of the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), the organisation is calling for a pre-emptive ban on the development, stockpiling, transfer, deployment and use of fully autonomous weapons systems (AWS or killer robots).

Precursors to fully autonomous weapons – including drones and other unmanned weapons systems which are currently operated by humans – already are used to commit violations and present serious challenges to ensuring accountability.

But rapid advances in technology could mean the next generation of robotic weapons would be able to select and attack targets, potentially killing or injuring people, without effective human control – a chilling prospect which carries a new set of concerns.

“The second round of talks in Geneva this week are a clear sign that governments are waking up to the wide range of serious concerns posed by killer robots, whose development and deployment in the near future seem all but inevitable if we don’t act now,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, Campaigner on Arms Control, Security Trade & Human Rights at Amnesty International, who is currently at the CCW talks in Geneva.

“The legal, ethical, and moral quandaries of using these systems in warfare are rightly beginning to receive the attention they deserve. But what’s still being widely overlooked is the likelihood that they will also be used in police operations, and it is urgent that this is addressed now.

“Relying solely on machines to maintain law and order is not just a hypothetical scenario explored in countless sci-fi films. It is a chilling idea which may actually be realised if current developments are left unchecked. Now is the time for states to ban killer robots both on the battlefield and in policing, before we reach the point of no return.”

Human rights concerns

Amnesty International’s new briefing, “Autonomous Weapons Systems: Five key human rights issues for consideration”, focuses on the implications of police use of killer robots in law enforcement.

It argues that police use of robotic weapons would be fundamentally incompatible with international human rights law, resulting in unlawful killings, excessive use of force causing injuries, and undermining the right to human dignity.

Unlike highly trained law enforcement personnel, robots could not by themselves peacefully diffuse confrontations, distinguish between lawful and unlawful orders, make decisions about graduated response with a view to minimising harm, or be held accountable for mistakes or malfunctions that result in death or serious injuries.

Killer robots on the horizon

Fully autonomous weapons without some level of human oversight have not yet been deployed, but rapid advances in technology are bringing them closer to reality.

In fact, there is just a small leap from products that are already on the market to fully fledged killer robots. Companies in the USA, UK, Jordan, Israel, Spain and elsewhere are already developing “less lethal” robotic weapons for policing that are remotely operated or which fire automatically when touched.

These include unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and ground vehicles that can apparently shoot electric-shock darts, tear gas and other less-lethal projectiles, resulting in the risk of death or serious injuries.

One example is the ShadowHawk drone being developed by US-based Vanguard Defence Industries. The ShadowHawk is designed to carry out operations similar to those of a surveillance helicopter, but it can also be weaponised.

A media report hailed these capabilities when a Texas Sheriff’s office purchased one in 2011: “Although its initial role will be limited to surveillance, the ShadowHawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, previously used against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and East Africa, has the ability to tase suspects from above as well as carrying 12-gauge shotguns and grenade launchers”.

Amnesty International believes that in policing operations, autonomous weapons systems wouldn’t be able to properly assess complex policing situations and comply with relevant standards.

“Under international standards, police may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty. They prohibit the use of firearms except in defence against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. It’s very difficult to imagine a machine substituting for human judgement, which is critically important to decisions on the use of potentially lethal force,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim.

Recommendations

Amnesty International and its partners on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots are calling for a global pre-emptive ban on the development, transfer, deployment and use of autonomous weapons systems, for either armed conflict or law enforcement.

In the absence of such a prohibition, states must publicly support and implement a call by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to impose a moratorium on the development, transfer, deployment and use of such systems.

In the meantime, it is imperative that due consideration be given to the human rights implications of autonomous weapons systems. These must be effectively and actively addressed as soon as possible by relevant UN and other relevant fora and mechanisms, including continuing consideration within the CCW and the Human Rights Council.

Amnesty International

Next article – Britain, the paragon of hypocrisy

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