23 Jan 2019

International pressure builds to ban killer robots

Statements from the Holy See and United Nations are joined over 30 states raising the need for legal action in the last year.

By David Cowan



A recent statement by a Vatican representative to the United Nations highlighted the growing international pressure to ban killer robots, known as Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). In a speech to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, warned “In order to prevent an arms race and the increase of inequalities and instability, it is an imperative duty to act promptly: now is the time to prevent LAWS from becoming the reality of tomorrow’s warfare.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has defined LAWS as being “any weapon system with autonomy in its critical functions. That is, a weapon system that can select – i.e. search for or detect, identify, track, select – and attack – i.e. use force against, neutralize, damage or destroy – targets without human intervention.”

Vatican statement

The archbishop was speaking the 2018 Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW). He said the parties to that convention should “make a courageous and enlightened decision of prohibiting LAWS like it did in the past concerning other types of weapons.”

The development of robotic weapons or “killer robots” he said will lead to “altering irreversibly the nature of warfare, becoming more detached from human agency, putting in question the humanity of our societies.” He explained, “The increasingly active participation and interaction among States, civil society and the scientific community clearly indicates the urgency and far-reaching implications of LAWS,” which calls for “a responsible attitude of prevention.”

Autonomous lethal weapons has been a staple on the CCW agenda for the past five years, the archbishop noted in his speech, and the Holy See has constantly questioned whether such weapons systems could irreversibly alter the nature of warfare, create detachment from human agency and put in question the humanity of societies.


UN head calls for a ban

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres used the November Paris Peace Forum, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, to reiterate his call for a ban. Mr Guterres said, “Imagine the consequences of an autonomous system that could, by itself, target and attack human beings. I call upon States to ban these weapons, which are politically unacceptable and morally repugnant.”

Mr Guterres first called for a ban on killer robots in a November web summit in Portugal, where he stated “For me there is a message that is very clear – machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law.”

In his May 2018 “agenda for disarmament,” Mr Guterres detailed fully autonomous weapons issues, and offered to support states to elaborate new measures such as “legally binding arrangements” to ensure that “humans remain at all times in control over the use of force.” At the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September, he described weapons that could select and attack a target on their own as “morally repugnant” and called on states to address the “multiple alarms.”


State level objections

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an NGO campaigning on the issue, has noted the increasing number of declarations relating to Killer robots in 2018, most notable at the UN General Assembly. Nearly 50 states addressed killer robots concerns in their statements to the 73rd session of the UNGA this year, which is the highest number of countries to comment yet at an annual UNGA session. Several states told the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots that they saw a need to heed the UN Secretary-General’s call to action on killer robots.

At the UNGA opening, Pakistan’s foreign minister reminded states of the essential need to swiftly develop new international law to deal with the challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons. Germany’s foreign minister’s urged states to support “our initiative to ban fully autonomous weapons—before it is too late!” German officials subsequently said that the government is not pursuing a ban at this time, but rather a political declaration affirming the “principle of human control over future lethal weapons systems” together with France “as a first step.”

The 2018 UNGA session was the first time that El Salvador, Liechtenstein, Nepal, Thailand, and Tunisia had spoken on killer robots, bringing to 90 the number of countries that have commenting on the issue since 2013. Tunisia said autonomous weapons must be regulated before they are used, while El Salvador proposed a legally binding instrument to ensure human control of weapons systems. Nepal raised the serious ethical and moral questions involved and called for “a sound regulatory framework.” Thailand highlighted the importance of respecting and “evolving” international humanitarian law.

Liechtenstein became the third European state to call for new treaty on killer robots, after Austria and the Holy Sea. It found that, “A number of technical developments clearly point to a need for new legal obligations, in particular in the area of lethal autonomous weapon systems.” Liechtenstein expressed support for “efforts to establish binding standards to ensure a human component in the decision making processes of such systems.” Liechtenstein said it looks forward to “stronger collective action” on this urgent issue of international concern and said “the principled resistance of very few States should not prevent the large majority from establishing and benefitting from new standards in this area – as it did not on many other important disarmament questions in the past.”

Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Pakistan, and Peru reiterated their previous calls to prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Brazil reminded delegates of its proposal, together with Austria and Chile, for the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to move to a negotiating mandate and establish a legally binding positive obligation to ensure human control of autonomous weapons systems. China called for “necessary regulations of the military application of such technologies under new international rules and norms developed through negotiations.”

Many states stressed the importance of retaining human control over weapon systems and the use of force, particularly Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, El Salvador, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Ambassador Thomas Hajcnoczi of Austria said, in a 19 October New York Times article entitled “Will There Be a Ban on Killer Robots?”, his government objects to fully autonomous weapons because “You’re delegating the decision to kill to a machine” and “a machine doesn’t have any measure of moral judgment or mercy.”


Moral dilemmas

Ireland agrees that autonomous weapons systems pose “considerable moral, legal and ethical dilemmas” and expressed its “firm belief that such weapons must always remain under meaningful human control.” A handful of European states (Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland) expressed interest in pursuing a political declaration on human control, as proposed by France and Germany, which the campaign views as insufficient to respond effectively to the multiple challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons.

Most country references to killer robots supported continued international discussion although Russia described the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems as “extremely premature and speculative.”

Austria and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots convened a UNGA side event in October, featuring presentations by the Arms Control Association, International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), and Project Ploughshares (Canada). Several state representatives attended, including from Brazil, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, and Portugal. ICRAC’s Peter Asaro delivered the campaign’s statement to UNGA First Committee, calling on “responsible governments to act promptly and pursue multilateral negotiations on a new ban treaty.” The campaign said it expects “nothing less” than a treaty to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems and the use of force and stands ready to cooperate with states and others keen to achieve this goal.

This article is in part based on data and comments published by the  Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. According to the campaign’s count: 34 states raised killer robots at UNGA in 2017, 36 did so in 2016, 32 in 2015, 23 in 2014, and 16 in 2013.


related topics