Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

December 12, 2016

Clinic and HRW Document Increase in Incendiary Weapons Attacks; Call for Stronger International Restrictions

PRESS RELEASE


Increase in Incendiary Weapon Attacks
Stronger International Restrictions Needed

 


(Geneva, December 12, 2016) – The mounting use of incendiary weapons, which cause horrific wounds to civilians, should prompt countries to strengthen the law restricting them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a diplomatic meeting about these and other weapons.

The 30-page report, “Time to Act against Incendiary Weapons,” documents civilian harm from incendiary weapons used in Syria since 2012, focusing on their increased use during the past year’s joint operations by Syrian government and Russian forces.

“Governments that care about protecting civilians should condemn incendiary weapon attacks and call for an end to the use of these exceptionally cruel weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Governments should also take action to strengthen international law on the weapons by committing to substantive discussions next year.”

A ZAB 2.5 incendiary submunition and remnants of a RBK-500 bomb in Khan Shaykun south of Idlib, following a September 30, 2016 attack. © 2016 SMART News Agency

A ZAB 2.5 incendiary submunition and remnants of a RBK-500 bomb in Khan Shaykun south of Idlib, following a September 30, 2016 attack.
© 2016 SMART News Agency

The Clinic co-published this report with Human Rights Watch, for which Bonnie Docherty is also a senior researcher. Continue Reading…

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December 9, 2016

Clinic and HRW call for formal talks on “killer robots,” aim for preemptive ban


PRESS RELEASE


Formalize ‘Killer Robots’ Talks; Aim for Ban

Fully Autonomous Weapons on Disarmament Conference Agenda

 

(Geneva, December 9, 2016) – Governments should agree at the upcoming multilateral disarmament meeting in Geneva to formalize their talks on fully autonomous weapons, with an eye toward negotiating a preemptive ban, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 49-page report, “Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban,” rebuts 16 key arguments against a ban on fully autonomous weapons.

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems and ‘killer robots,’ would be able to select and attack targets without meaningful human control. These weapons and others will be the subject of the five-year Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) from December 12-16, 2016.

“It’s time for countries to move beyond the talking shop phase and pursue a preemptive ban,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Governments should ensure that humans retain control over whom to target with their weapons and when to fire.”

The report is co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is also senior arms researcher. Continue Reading…

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October 20, 2016

Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement


PRESS RELEASE

Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement

Legal analysis shows ceasefire’s civilian protection commitments extend nationwide

 

(Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016)–  Reported abuses of civilians in non-ceasefire areas by the Myanmar military and other signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) would, if verified, constitute violations of key civilian protection provisions established by the agreement, said Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (the Clinic) in a legal memorandum released today. The military and other signatories should act immediately to address such reports, including by engaging with the mechanisms and processes established by the NCA and investigating alleged abuses.

The Clinic’s memorandum comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the signing of the NCA by the government and eight ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). While the agreement failed to include many of the EAOs that participated in the ceasefire talks, it was still heralded as a significant step in the country’s peace process. Over the past year, however, armed conflict has intensified in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere, with reports of widespread abuse of civilians by the Myanmar military in particular.

“Ongoing abuses in conflict zones cast doubt on the military’s commitment to the NCA and undermine the trust between Myanmar’s government and ethnic nationality populations,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Myanmar military officers can’t hide behind the fact the NCA was signed with only some ethnic armed organizations to abuse civilians in non-ceasefire areas.” Continue Reading…

September 20, 2016

The Clinic Welcomes New Advocacy Fellows

Posted by Cara Solomon

Now that we’re in the rhythm of the semester, it’s time to introduce some new faces in the International Human Rights Clinic. We’re thrilled to welcome five new clinical advocacy fellows, all accomplished lawyers with different expertise and experiences. They’re leading clinical projects this semester on a range of new topics, from human rights protection in investment treaties to armed conflict and the environment.

The Clinic's new advocacy fellows, from top right: Rebecca Agule, Yee Htun, Fola Adeleke, Juan Pablo Calderon-Meza, and Salma Waheedi.

The Clinic’s new advocacy fellows, from top left: Rebecca Agule, Yee Htun, Fola Adeleke, Juan Pablo Calderon-Meza, and Salma Waheedi.

In alphabetical order, here they are:

Fola Adeleke is a South African-trained lawyer who specializes in international economic law and human rights, corporate transparency, open government and accountability within the extractives industry. This semester, his projects focus on human rights protection in investment treaties and reconfiguring the licensing process of mining to include more consultation with communities.

Rebecca Agule, an alumna of the Clinic, is an American lawyer who specializes in the impact of conflict and violence upon individuals, communities, and the environment. This semester, her project focuses on armed conflict and the environment, with a focus on victim assistance.

Juan Pablo Calderón-Meza, a former Visiting Fellow with the Human Rights Program, is a Colombian attorney whose practice specializes in international law and human rights advocacy and litigation. This semester, his project focuses on accountability for corporations and executives that facilitated human rights abuses and atrocity crimes.

Yee Htun is the Director of  the Myanmar Program for Justice Trust, a legal non-profit that partners with lawyers and activists to strengthen communities fighting for justice and human rights. Born in Myanmar and trained as a lawyer in Canada, Yee specializes in gender justice and working on behalf of refugee and migrant communities. This semester, her project focuses on women advocates in Myanmar.

Salma Waheedi is an attorney who specializes in international human rights law, Islamic law, gender justice, family law, comparative constitutional law, and refugee and asylum law. Born in Bahrain and trained as a lawyer in the U.S., Salma currently holds a joint appointment with Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program, where she focuses on family relations in Islamic jurisprudence. This semester, her project focuses on gender justice under Islam.

We’re so pleased to have the fellows as part of our community this semester. Please swing by at some point to introduce yourself and say hello.

June 20, 2016

Losing Control: The Dangers of Killer Robots

Posted by Bonnie Docherty


This piece originally appeared in The Conversation on June 16, 2016



New technology could lead humans to relinquish control over decisions to use lethal force. As artificial intelligence advances, the possibility that machines could independently select and fire on targets is fast approaching. Fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” are quickly moving from the realm of science fiction toward reality.

These weapons, which could operate on land, in the air or at sea, threaten to revolutionize armed conflict and law enforcement in alarming ways. Proponents say these killer robots are necessary because modern combat moves so quickly, and because having robots do the fighting would keep soldiers and police officers out of harm’s way. But the threats to humanity would outweigh any military or law enforcement benefits.

Removing humans from the targeting decision would create a dangerous world. Machines would make life-and-death determinations outside of human control. The risk of disproportionate harm or erroneous targeting of civilians would increase. No person could be held responsible. Continue Reading…

April 11, 2016

Killer Robots: The Case for Human Control

Press release

“Killer Robots: The Case for Human Control”

Nations Convene to Discuss Fully Autonomous Weapons

 

(Geneva, April 11, 2015) – Countries should retain meaningful human control over weapons systems and ban fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic  said in a report issued today. The concept of meaningful human control will be a centerpiece of deliberations at a week-long multilateral meeting on the weapons, opening April 11, 2016, at the United Nations in Geneva.

The 16-page report, “Killer Robots and the Concept of Meaningful Human Control,” discusses the moral and legal importance of control and shows countries’ growing recognition of the need for humans to remain in charge of the critical functions of selecting and firing on targets.

“Machines have long served as instruments of war, but historically humans have directed how they are used,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic and the report’s lead author. “Now, there is a real threat that humans would relinquish their control and delegate life-and-death decisions to machines.”

Fully autonomous weapons would go a step beyond existing remote-controlled drones as they would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. Although these weapons do not exist yet, the rapid movement of technology from human “in-the-loop” weapons systems toward “out-of-the-loop” systems is attracting international attention and concern.

Human Rights Watch and the Harvard program also examined the rules requiring control in various areas of international law, including disarmament, and how they could provide insight into the use of the term in the context of autonomous weapons. Bans on mines, biological weapons, and chemical weapons show the value disarmament law has placed on control of weapons. A requirement for meaningful human control over lethal force would in effect prohibit the use of fully autonomous weapons and thus achieve a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons, the organizations said.

The report will be distributed at the third international meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva from April 11 to 15. Many of the 122 countries that have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons are expected to attend this meeting of experts on the subject, which Germany is chairing. The meeting continues deliberations on the matter held in April 2015 and May 2014.

Human Rights Watch coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which believes that work in the Convention on Conventional Weapons forum should lead to new international law prohibiting fully autonomous weapons. The Convention on Conventional Weapons preemptively banned blinding lasers in 1995.

“Humans should retain control of weapons systems and individual attacks, not only of overall operations,” said Docherty, who is also senior arms division researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Mandating human control would help avoid threats to the fundamental moral principles over the decision to use force.”

Fully autonomous weapons would lack the human capacity to feel empathy, which can act as a key check on killing, the organizations said. Ceding human control over decisions about who lives and who dies would also deprive people of their inherent dignity, as inanimate machines can neither truly comprehend the value of human life nor the significance of its loss.

Mandating meaningful human control would close the accountability gap that would be created by the use of fully autonomous weapons. It would ensure that someone could be punished for an unlawful act caused by the use of the weapon. With a legal requirement for human control, a commander could be held criminally liable for using any weapon without such control.

Meaningful human control over the use of weapons is also consistent with and promotes compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, notably distinction and proportionality. Distinction requires the ability to understand an individual’s behavior and proportionality requires human judgment to weigh civilian harm and military advantage. Human control is also crucial to upholding human rights law. Two UN special rapporteurs said in February that: “Where advanced technology is employed, law enforcement officials must remain personally in control of the actual delivery of use of force.”

Since the international debate over full autonomy in weapons systems began at the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting in 2013, almost 30 countries have specifically addressed the concept of human control in their statements, largely characterizing it as meaningful, appropriate, or effective. Many of these countries explicitly support requiring human control and most have called for more in-depth discussions of the topic.

The concept of meaningful human control is also gaining currency outside of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. For example, a 2015 commentary on the right to life issued by the treaty body of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights found that: “Any machine autonomy in the selection of human targets or the use of force should be subject to meaningful human control.”

Countries participating in the Geneva meeting will not make any formal decisions. The meeting aims to build a common base of knowledge about technical, ethical, legal, operational, security, and other concerns relating to the weapons. However, they “may agree by consensus on recommendations for further work for consideration” by the treaty at its Fifth Review Conference, a multilateral meeting held every five years, in December 2016.

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Mary Wareham, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch arms division, serves as the campaign’s global coordinator. The international coalition of more than 60 nongovernmental organizations is working to preemptively ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

“Countries should not only dedicate more time to considering concerns about killer robots but also commit to pursue a timely and tangible outcome,” Docherty said. “Substantive work will only be possible if countries adopt policy and legislative measures to retain human control of weapons before the technology advances too far.”

The following International Human Rights Clinic students helped research and write the report under Docherty’s supervision: Anna Joseph, JD ’16; Josiah Kollmeyer, JD ’17; Lan Mei, JD ’17; and Kristen Zornada LLM ’16.  Docherty, Mei, and Zornada are at the United Nations in Geneva this week to participate in the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting and to present their paper.”

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March 10, 2016

Hostile Intent and Civilian Protection: Lessons From Recent Conflicts

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

This post originally appeared in Just Security

Is a driver speeding toward a military checkpoint launching a suicide attack or racing his pregnant wife to the hospital? Is a local man digging on a roadside at night planting an improvised explosive device (IED) or working his farm when the temperature is cooler? Is a resident who jumps up when troops burst into his home at 2am reaching for a gun or reacting in fear? In Afghanistan and Iraq, US troops have had to answer such questions repeatedly, often in split-second time. Civilian and military lives have depended on the accuracy of their determinations.

Under the US Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE), troops are allowed to fire in self-defense if they encounter someone demonstrating hostile intent, i.e., the “threat of imminent use of force.” Identifying such a threat presents challenges, however, especially when enemy forces blend in with the local population. Mistaken determinations of hostile intent were a major cause of civilian casualties attributable to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014. Tackling Tough Calls, a new report by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, examines this problem. Drawing on interviews with combat veterans and current servicemembers as well as open source research, it shows how the US military could better protect civilians from such errors without jeopardizing the lives of its troops.

Continue Reading…

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January 7, 2016

“Fighting for Disarmament”: Bonnie Docherty’s work featured in Harvard Gazette

This Q & A by reporter Liz Mineo ran in the Harvard Gazette on January 3, 2015

After researching the devastating humanitarian effects of the deadly cluster munitions used in Afghanistan in 2002, Bonnie Docherty joined a worldwide campaign to eliminate them.

Six years after she started her probe, cluster bombs were banned. Her investigation on the use of cluster munitions in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq and Lebanon, was highly influential in a 2008 treaty, joined by 118 countries, that bans these weapons.

121115_Docherty_605

Bonnie showing examples of inert cluster munitions. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

For Docherty, a lecturer on law and a senior instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the battle to protect civilians from unnecessary harm continues.

Last month, Docherty traveled to Geneva to advocate for stronger regulations on incendiary devices, which she calls “exceptionally cruel weapons” that have been used in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine.

Docherty, who is also a senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch, recently sat down for an interview to talk about these weapons, killer robots, and her guiding principle: to protect civilians from suffering caused by armed conflicts.

GAZETTE: Before you became a disarmament advocate, you were a reporter for a local newspaper. Can you tell us about this part of your life?

DOCHERTY: After college, I was a reporter for The Middlesex News, now the MetroWest Daily News, outside of Boston, for three years. I covered mostly local news, government meetings, environmental issues, but I had the opportunity to go to Bosnia and embed with the peacekeepers for about 10 days in 1998. There was an Army lab in my town, that’s how I got the invitation to go to Bosnia. I had been interested in armed conflicts, but that trip definitely increased my interest in that field.

GAZETTE: How did you make the jump from suburban journalism to human rights and disarmament issues?

DOCHERTY: After I left the newsroom, I went to Harvard Law School. Right after graduation, I went to Human Rights Watch, which was a perfect mix of journalism and law because you go out in the field and you apply the law to what you find. My start date was Sept. 12, 2001, by happenstance, so whatever was planned was changed. Six months later, I was in Afghanistan researching the use of cluster munitions, which was my first exposure to disarmament issues.

GAZETTE: What are cluster munitions, and why are they so dangerous?

DOCHERTY: Cluster munitions are large weapons, such as bombs or rockets that contain dozens or hundreds of small munitions called submunitions. They’re problematic because they have a broad area effect — they spread over the size of a football field — and because many of them don’t explode on impact and lie around like landmines and explode in years or decades to come.

GAZETTE: How did your involvement with cluster munitions begin?

121115_Docherty_570

Bonnie holds an inert submunition fragment from a cluster munition. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

DOCHERTY: I went to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and later Georgia to document the use of these weapons. I’ve spoken with dozens of victims of cluster munitions, but the story I remember the most is when I was in Lebanon with two students from Harvard Law’s International Human Rights Clinic in 2006. We were there doing field research after Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon. We were at a restaurant, and someone asked us to go to the town of Halta immediately. When we arrived, we found out that two hours earlier a 12-year-old boy had been killed by a cluster submunition. He had been playing with his brother, who had been throwing pinecones at him. The boy picked up something to throw back at his brother. It turned out to be a submunition. His friend said, “Oh, no. That’s dangerous, drop it,” and when he went to throw it away, it exploded next to his head. When we were there, they were still cleaning up the pool of blood from his body. The Lebanese army found 10, 12 submunitions lying around right next to a village, waiting to kill or injure civilians, farmers, children.

GAZETTE: Your research on cluster munitions led you to become one of the world’s most widely known advocates against these weapons. How did this happen?

Continue Reading…

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December 18, 2015

Commentary: The Horror of Incendiary Weapons and the Need for Stronger Law

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

This post, “Unrivaled Cruelty: The Horror of Incendiary Weapons and the Need for Stronger Law,” was originally published in Jurist

Incendiary weapons inflict almost unrivaled cruelty on their victims. Photos taken after an incendiary weapon attack on a Syrian school show the charred bodies of children, who must have experienced unimaginable agony. The weapons cause excruciatingly painful burns, and treatment for survivors requires sloughing off dead skin, which has been likened to being flayed alive. While individuals often react to accounts of such suffering with horror, government efforts to minimize the harm from these weapons by strengthening international law have been unacceptably slow.

Many countries have expressed outrage at the use of incendiary weapons over the past five years, including at meetings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), the treaty that regulates the weapons. The voices of these countries are crucial and they should continue to raise the issue. But it is time to move from condemnation to concrete action. A major disarmament conference scheduled for next year presents an excellent opportunity for progress.

Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. They can be designed to burn people or materiel, serve as smokescreens or provide illumination. People who survive attacks with incendiary weapons not only experience physical injuries, but also frequently endure psychological trauma, permanent disfigurement and difficulties reintegrating into society.

Over the past two years Human Rights Watch has documented new use of incendiary weapons in Syria and Ukraine, and it is investigating allegations of use in Libya and Yemen in 2015. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic provides evidence of these attacks, along with a five-year review of developments on the issue and recommendations for next steps.

Existing international law has failed to prevent the harm caused by incendiary weapons. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, adopted in 1980, restricts use of incendiary weapons in “concentrations of civilians.” As of December 2015, 112 countries had joined the protocol.

But two key shortcomings have limited its effectiveness. First, it defines “incendiary weapon” as being “primarily designed to set fires to objects or to cause burn injury to persons.” As a result some countries maintain that it excludes munitions with incendiary effects, such as those containing white phosphorus. Although primarily designed to function as smokescreens these weapons inflict suffering comparable to other incendiary weapons. White phosphorus burns through flesh to the bone and can reignite when bandages are removed and the substance is exposed to oxygen.

The protocol also makes an arbitrary distinction between air-dropped and ground-launched incendiary weapons, creating exceptions for certain uses of ground-launched weapons. The delivery system is irrelevant to the victims, however, and ground-launched models have become increasingly common and accessible even to non-state armed groups.

The solution to these problems is legally, if not politically, quite simple. Protocol III should be amended to define the weapons based on their effects rather than their design. And it should at a minimum prohibit the use of all incendiary weapons in concentrations of civilians, regardless of their delivery system. An absolute ban would have the greatest humanitarian benefit.

Over the past five years about three dozen countries, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN secretary-general and independent groups, have spoken out about this issue at meetings of the Convention on Conventional Weapons and other UN bodies, and in letters to Human Rights Watch. Most have highlighted the humanitarian impact of incendiary weapons in general or condemned recent use. Many have urged treaty members to strengthen Protocol III or said they are willing to discuss the adequacy of the protocol.

At the most recent meeting of the states parties, held at the UN in Geneva in November, momentum continued to grow. About 15 countries publicly addressed the incendiary weapons issue, more than in previous years, and others privately expressed support for reviewing Protocol III. A majority of these countries called for closing the protocol’s loopholes while others said they wanted to revisit existing rules. Six countries commented on incendiary weapons for the first time in this forum, demonstrating the increasing recognition of the problem and need to take action. The meeting’s final report included a reference to concerns about incendiary weapons for the fifth consecutive year. Such developments are encouraging.

But amending international law is a slow process and there will be hurdles to success. At the November meeting Russia said the proposal to pursue formal discussions on incendiary weapons would be “counterproductive.” Given that the treaty’s rules require decisions to be made by consensus, Russia alone could block further progress. Russia’s statement on the issue was its first in a meeting of this treaty, however, meaning that at least it takes the calls for change seriously.

The treaty’s Fifth Review Conference—a meeting held every five years—is scheduled for next December and will be an important opportunity for countries to take action. There treaty members will reflect on developments since the last review conference in 2011 and make plans for the next five years. Review conferences have historically been pivotal in the evolution of the treaty and its protocols.

In the coming months countries should ensure that incendiary weapons are placed on the agenda for the review conference. At the conference itself they should continue to express their concerns and agree to a new mandate that sets aside time to discuss the implementation and adequacy of Protocol III. The goal should be to negotiate the amendments needed to strengthen the protocol.

When Protocol III was adopted in 1980, some countries criticized its regulations of incendiary weapons as inadequate. They contended that there had been strong support for a ban but that compromise had watered down the final product. Several held out hope that the protocol’s failings would one day be addressed and recommended that the instrument be improved at a future review conference.

Thirty-five years later that has yet to happen, but it is not too late. The horrendous suffering incendiary weapons have caused civilians in recent years and the growing international opposition mean that the time has come to act. Countries should seize the opportunity presented by the 2016 review conference and take tangible steps to increase the protection of civilians from incendiary weapons.

November 10, 2015

Clinic and HRW: Ramp up Action to Ban Killer Robots

PRESS RELEASE


Ramp Up Action to Ban Killer Robots
Blinding Lasers Prohibition Offers Precedent

 

(Geneva, November 9, 2015) – Governments should agree to expand and formalize their international deliberations on fully autonomous weapons, with the ultimate aim of preemptively banning them, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a joint report released today. These weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots, would be able to select and attack targets without further human intervention.

The 18-page report, “Precedent for Preemption,” details why countries agreed to preemptively ban blinding laser weapons in 1995 and says that the process could be a model for current efforts to prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Countries participating in the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will decide by consensus on November 13, 2015, whether to continue their deliberations on lethal autonomous weapons systems next year.

“Concerns over fully autonomous weapons have pushed them to the top of the international disarmament agenda, but countries need to pick up the pace of discussions,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School, and senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch, which is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Governments can take direct action now with commitments to ban weapons with no meaningful human control over whom to target and when to attack.”

The second Convention on Conventional Weapons informal meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva in April 2015. © 2015 United Nations Office at Geneva

The second Convention on Conventional Weapons informal meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva in April 2015. © 2015 United Nations Office at Geneva

The report calls on countries to initiate a more robust process through creation of a group of governmental experts on fully autonomous weapons under the CCW.

Artificial intelligence experts, roboticists, and other scientists predict that fully autonomous weapons could be developed within years, not decades. The preemptive ban on blinding lasers, which is in a protocol attached to the conventional weapons treaty, shows that a prohibition on future weapons is possible.

“The prospect of fully autonomous weapons raises many of the same concerns as blinding lasers did two decades ago,” said Docherty, lead author of the new report exploring the history of the prohibition on lasers that would permanently blind their victims. “Countries should adopt the same solution by banning fully autonomous weapons before they reach the battlefield.”

The report shows that threats to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, as well as notions of abhorrence and social unacceptability, helped drive countries to ban blinding lasers. Fully autonomous weapons present similar dangers.

Countries were further motivated by the risk of widespread proliferation of blinding lasers to parties that have little regard for international law, a risk echoed in discussions of fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School clinic said. As with blinding lasers 20 years ago, a ban on fully autonomous weapons could clarify and strengthen existing law without limiting the development of related legitimate technology.

The groups acknowledged notable differences in the specific legal problems and technological character of the two weapons but found that those differences make banning fully autonomous weapons even more critical.

In other publications, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch have elaborated on the challenges that fully autonomous weapons would face in complying with international humanitarian law and international human rights law and analyzed the lack of accountability that would exist for the unlawful harm caused by such weapons.

Several of the 121 countries that have joined the CCW – including the United States, United Kingdom, China, Israel, Russia, and South Korea – are developing weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality. The countries party to the treaty held nine days of informal talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems in 2014 and 2015, but they should now ramp up their deliberations, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.

Docherty and Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, will present the report at a side event briefing at 2 p.m. on November 9 in Conference Room XI at the United Nations in Geneva. At the end of the week, Goose will assess the meeting’s decision on fully autonomous weapons, joined by other Campaign to Stop Killer Robots representatives, at a side event briefing at 1 p.m. on November 13 in Conference Room XI.

Precedent for Preemption: The Ban on Blinding Lasers as a Model for a Killer Robots Prohibition” is available at:
www.hrw.org/node/283112/

NOTE: Mana Azarmi, JD ’16, Federica du Pasquier, MA ’16, and Marium Khawaja, LLM ’16, contributed research to this report.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on fully autonomous weapons, please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/topic/arms/killer-robots

For more information on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, please visit:
www.stopkillerrobots.org

For more information, please contact:
In Geneva, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or bdocherty@law.harvard.edu

 

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