Blog: Human Rights Watch

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…

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.

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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?

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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?

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April 9, 2015

Clinic and HRW Release Report: “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots”

PRESS RELEASE

The “Killer Robots” Accountability Gap

Obstacles to Legal Responsibility Show Need for Ban

 

(Geneva, April 9, 2015) – Programmers, manufacturers, and military personnel could all escape liability for unlawful deaths and injuries caused by fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report was issued in advance of a multilateral meeting on the weapons at the United Nations in Geneva.

RobotCoverThe 38-page report, “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots,” details significant hurdles to assigning personal accountability for the actions of fully autonomous weapons under both criminal and civil law. It also elaborates on the consequences of failing to assign legal responsibility. The report is jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

“No accountability means no deterrence of future crimes, no retribution for victims, no social condemnation of the responsible party,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. “The many obstacles to justice for potential victims show why we urgently need to ban fully autonomous weapons.” Continue Reading…

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December 17, 2014

Clinic and Partners Call on Myanmar Officials to Drop Charges against Father Complaining of Rights Violations

Posted by Matthew Bugher, Global Justice Fellow

In a letter to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on December 8, the International Human Rights Clinic and five leading international human rights organizations called for criminal charges to be immediately and unconditionally dropped against Shayam Brang Shawng, a resident of Kachin State in northern Myanmar. Brang Shawng is accused of making “false charges” in a complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission about the alleged killing of his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing, by Myanmar Army soldiers. A Myanmar Army officer initiated the case against Brang Shawng, and the action appears to be retaliatory in nature. The Myanmar government has not responded to a letter, reposted below, which the Clinic and its partners published today.

 

December 08, 2014

President Thein Sein
President’s Office
Nay Pyi Taw
Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Re: Prosecution of Shayam Brang Shawng

Dear President Thein Sein,

We write to you to express our concerns about the criminal prosecution of Shayam Brang Shawng (hereinafter Brang Shawng), an ethnic Kachin resident of Sut Ngai Yang village, Hpakant Township, Kachin State, who has been charged under Article 211 of the Myanmar Penal Code.

Brang Shawng is accused of making “false charges” against the Myanmar Army in a letter he sent to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on October 1, 2012. In the letter, Brang Shawng alleged that Myanmar Army soldiers from Infantry Battalion (IB) 389 shot and killed his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing, in Sut Ngai Yang village on September 13, 2012.

The criminal prosecution of Brang Shawng appears to be in retaliation for the complaint to the MNHRC and runs contrary to Myanmar’s obligations under domestic and international law. The case also calls into question the ability of the MNHRC and other state institutions to protect persons filing complaints with the commission. We therefore request that you take action to ensure that the charges against Brang Shawng are immediately and unconditionally dropped and that similar cases do not occur in the future.

Death of Ja Seng Ing and prosecution of Brang Shawng

On December 6, 2014, the Truth Finding Committee of Ja Seng Ing’s Death (the Committee)—an independent group of ten civil society organizations from Kachin State—published a 42-page report concerning the death of Ja Seng Ing. The Committee conducted interviews with 16 individuals who had knowledge relevant to Ja Seng Ing’s death. The report includes numerous accounts indicating that Myanmar Army soldiers shot and killed Ja Seng Ing in Sut Ngai Yang village on September 13, 2012.

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November 11, 2014

Clinic Report: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians in Ukraine, Syria

 PRESS RELEASE

Ukraine, Syria: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians
Stronger International Law Needed for Weapons That Burn

 

(Geneva, November 11, 2014) – Evidence of the use of incendiary weapons in Ukraine and Syria highlights the need for stricter law to govern these weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

The 16-page report, “Incendiary Weapons: Recent Use and Growing Opposition,” details incendiary weapon attacks in Ukraine and Syria and illustrates the increasing stigma against the weapons. Incendiary weapons can cause excruciatingly painful thermal and respiratory burns. Victims who survive often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage due to extensive scarring and disfigurement.

A misfired Grad 9M22S rocket equipped with a 9N510 incendiary warhead found near Ilovaisk, Ukraine on October 12, 2014. ©2014 Human Rights Watch/Mark Hiznay

A misfired Grad 9M22S rocket equipped with a 9N510 incendiary warhead found near Ilovaisk, Ukraine on October 12, 2014. ©2014 Human Rights Watch/Mark Hiznay

“Weapons that cause terrible burns and disfigure survivors have been used against towns in both Syria and Ukraine,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The recent attacks with incendiary weapons show it’s past time for nations to reassess and strengthen international law on these cruel weapons,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer in the Harvard clinic.

The report is being distributed at the annual meeting of countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 10-14, 2014. Protocol III of the treaty bans certain use of incendiary weapons, but its loopholes and inconsistencies have not been addressed since the law was created more than 30 years ago.

Human Rights Watch researchers will present the report’s findings at a CCW side event at 2 p.m. on November 12 in Room XXIV at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch documented attacks with incendiary Grad rockets on two towns in Ukraine, although the organization was unable to confirm the party responsible. In Syria in 2014, government forces have continued their use of incendiary weapons and have also dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs containing incendiary components.

All countries and especially CCW states parties should condemn such use of incendiary weapons and express support for revisiting and amending the protocol, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said. Continue Reading…

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October 3, 2014

Local Film Series Focuses on Human Rights

Posted by Cara Solomon

For the past few years, we’ve kept an eye on a promising addition to the local film scene: the DocYard, which screens documentaries primarily at the much-beloved Brattle Theater. This autumn, we’re pleased to report the series includes three human rights-focused films, including a showing of “Watchers of the Sky” that we’re co-sponsoring in early November.

eteamBut first up, this Monday, Oct. 6., is “E-Team,” which focuses on four members of the Emergencies Team, the “boots on the ground” division of Human Rights Watch. A panel discussion will follow with filmmaker Ross Kauffman and Carroll Bogert, Deputy Executive Director of External Relations at Human Rights Watch, moderated by Robb Moss, filmmaker and professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. The documentary starts at 7 p.m.

Next, on Oct. 20, the series features “Return to Homs,” which follows “the journey of two close friends whose lives had been upended by the battle raging in Syria….When the army cracks down and their beloved city of Homs becomes a bombed-out ghost town, watchers_these two peaceful protesters finally take up arms and transform into rebel insurgents.” After the screening, Robb Moss will ask questions of filmmaker Talal Derki via Skype.

Lastly, on Nov. 8, the Human Rights Program is co-sponsoring a showing of the award-winning film, “Watchers of the Sky,” which focuses on the life of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who created the word “genocide.” Following the screening, HLS Dean Martha Minow will participate in a discussion, along with the film’s director, Edet Belzberg, and HLS professors Alex Whiting and Sam Moyn.

Enjoy!

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September 3, 2014

Cluster Munitions Ban: National Laws Needed

Posted by Cara Solomon

This afternoon, the International Human Rights Clinic released a joint report with Human Rights Watch urging countries to enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions. The report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” was researched and written primarily by Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty, as well as clinical students Amy Tan, Fletcher ’14, and Nick Sansone, JD ’15.

Bonnie presented the report in Costa Rica today at the annual meeting of countries that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. For more information, see below for the press release from Human Rights Watch.

 

PRESS RELEASE

 

Cluster Munitions Ban: National Laws Needed

Annual Treaty Meeting Opens in Costa Rica

 

(San Jose, Costa Rica, September 3, 2014) – Countries around the world should enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at an international meeting of nations party to the treaty.

The 81-page report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” urges countries to pass robust national legislation as soon as possible to carry out the provisions of the treaty. The report describes the elements of a comprehensive law and highlights exemplary provisions in existing laws. The report was jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

“To maximize the global cluster munition treaty’s impact, all countries should adopt national laws that apply its high standards at home,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “Prohibitions that can be enforced in domestic courts can help ensure that these deadly weapons don’t harm civilians.”

bonniereportCluster munitions are large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of submunitions. They cause civilian casualties during attacks, especially in populated areas, because they blanket a broad area with submunitions. In addition, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact and thus linger, like de facto landmines, killing or injuring civilians long after the initial attack.

Representatives from governments, UN agencies, and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) are convening in San Jose, Costa Rica, from September 2 through 5, 2014, for the Fifth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. They will discuss a range of matters relating to the status of the convention, including national legislation.

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions obliges states parties to enact national laws that penalize violations of its absolute prohibition on cluster munitions with imprisonment or fines. The treaty also requires destruction of stocks, clearance of remnants, and victim assistance. As of August 2014, 84 countries were full parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and another 29 countries had signed it.

According to “Cluster Munition Monitor 2014,” an annual report on the status of the treaty, 22 states parties have enacted national legislation dedicated to implementing the convention, while another 19 are in the process of drafting, considering, or adopting national legislation. Twenty-six states parties view other, more general national laws as sufficient to enforce the convention’s provisions.

While no single law represents best practice, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Clinic highlighted provisions of existing implementation statutes that offer support for each essential element of legislation. National legislation should incorporate both the prohibitions and the positive obligations to minimize the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions, the groups said. Continue Reading…

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August 20, 2014

HRP Alumni in the News

Posted by Cara Solomon

We use all kinds of strategies here at the International Human Rights Clinic to push for change. Litigation. Treaty negotiation. Documentation and reporting.

As Communications Coordinator, I’ve always been partial to advocacy. Media advocacy, to be more precise. This summer, our alumni are putting it to great use in outlets all over the world.

On Monday, The Huffington Post ran a column by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, a Satter fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documenting the devastating toll the conflict in Gaza is taking on civilians. For the column, Nicolette spoke by phone with Gazans she met last year while researching civilian perspectives on involvement, status, and risk in armed conflict, including in Libya, Bosnia, and Somalia.

In “No Safe Place in Gaza,” she writes:

A young woman described the crippling fear she had experienced over the last four weeks: “The worst of all is the night time,” she said. “There is no power, no electricity, and there are tens of drones in the sky. Whenever you hear a rocket, you think it’s targeting your house. You are running from one room to another. I know this is silly — if your house is hit, it won’t matter which room you were in.”

Each night, her family of six gathered on mattresses that they had pulled together in the middle of the living room, “far away from the windows, so that they don’t break,” she said. This way, if their house was hit, the whole family would be killed together. “We don’t want one of the family to survive and then have to grieve for the rest of us,” she said.

At the end of the column, Nicolette lists several strategies the Israeli government and Hamas could use to limit civilian suffering.

Closer to home, as police in combat gear clashed last week with protesters in Ferguson, MO, Sara Zampierin, JD ’11, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was quoted in a New Yorker article, “The Economics of Police Militarization.” The article attributed some of the tension in Ferguson to the underlying problem of “criminal justice debt,” which can often pit law enforcement against residents.

Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees…What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.

From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free.

And earlier this summer, Clara Long, JD ’12, an immigration and border policy researcher with Human Rights Watch, waded into the heated debate over the surge of migration at the southeastern US border. In an Op-Ed she co-authored for The Guardian, Clara railed against the Obama administration’s plans to open more family detention centers. The headline read: “Obama pledged to limit the practice of detaining minors. What happened?”

It appears that the White House has come to view being “thoughtful and humane” as a political liability. The new move to ramp up family detention comes in response to criticism that the administration’s lax immigration enforcement “created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally”, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it last week.

Obama’s move is all the more disappointing because effective alternatives to detention exist and are used in countries facing similar migration surges. Countries like Italy and Malta, prime entrances for migrants to the EU, have open reception facilities where migrant and asylum-seeking families can come and go at will – and Malta pledged to end immigration detention of children altogether in 2014. Though neither country has a spotless record – Italy summarily returns to Greece some unaccompanied migrant children and Malta sometimes detains unaccompanied migrant kids while authorities try to figure out their ages – their examples show that detaining kids with families is a choice, not a necessity.

Clara wrote another column for The Guardian on border removals in April.

In response to this flurry of activity, we at HRP have just two things to say: Thank you. And well done.

June 16, 2014

The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots

Posted by Cara Solomon

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council took a fresh look at fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Previous international debate had focused on the weapons’ ability to comply with laws of war; the Council, by contrast, examined the issue through the lens of international human rights law, which applies in times of peace as well as armed conflict. In this June 9 post originally published by JURIST, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty argued that killer robots threaten the most fundamental human rights.

 

Fully autonomous weapons, which could select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, have the potential to revolutionize the nature of warfare, bringing greater speed and reach to military operations. In the process, though, this emerging technology could endanger both civilians and soldiers.

Nations have been considering the multiple challenges these weapons would pose to the laws of war, also called international humanitarian law. But little attention has been given to the implications for human rights law. If these weapons were developed and used for policing, for example, they would threaten the most basic of these rights, including the right to life, the right to a remedy and the principle of human dignity.

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” do not yet exist, but research and technology in a number of countries are moving rapidly in that direction. Because these machines would have the power to determine when to kill, they raise a host of legal, ethical and scientific concerns. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are advocating for a pre-emptive prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 52 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call. Continue Reading…

June 4, 2014

Taking on “Killer Robots”

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

As readers of this blog will know, last month Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty traveled with students to Geneva for the first multilateral meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons devoted to fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Below is her re-cap of the week’s events, published originally on May 23, 2014 in the online forum Just Security.

 

“Taking on ‘Killer Robots'”

 

New weapons that could revolutionize killing are on the horizon. Lethal autonomous weapons systems, also called fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots,” would go beyond today’s armed drones. They would be able to select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention. In other words, they could determine themselves when to take a human life.

Representatives from 87 countries gathered at the United Nations in Geneva last week to discuss concerns about this technology and possible ways to respond. The conference was the first multilateral meeting dedicated to lethal autonomous weapons systems. It represented a crucial step in a process that should result in a ban on these problematic weapons before it grows too late to change course.

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are calling for a pre-emptive prohibition on the development, production, and use of these weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 51 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call.

Overall, the talks in Geneva were productive and positive. The conference, under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), attracted hundreds of delegates from governments, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental groups, setting a record for a CCW meeting. Participants engaged in four days of substantive discussions about the technical, ethical, legal, and operational concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons.

This “informal meeting of experts” was also noteworthy for its timeliness, unusual for a CCW conference. This meeting took place just a year and a half after Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic issued a groundbreaking report on these weapons, Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, which the UN website credited with bringing the issue to “the international community’s attention.”

The meeting illuminated both areas of emerging agreement and ongoing points of contention. At their next meeting in November, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should show that they are serious about taking action to deal with fully autonomous weapons and adopt a mandate for even deeper discussions in 2015.

Areas of Emerging Agreement

Four promising themes emerged at the recent meeting. First, there was widespread support for continuing discussions. The countries made clear that they saw last week as merely an initial foray into the issue. Many delegates also explicitly recognized the importance of continuing to involve nongovernmental groups, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and its member organizations.

Second, a significant number of countries expressed particular concern about the ethical problems raised by fully autonomous weapons. The chair’s final report noted that these countries “stressed the fact that the possibility for a robotic system to acquire capacities of ‘moral reasoning’ and ‘judgment’ was highly questionable.” Furthermore, these machines could not understand and respect the value of life, yet they would be given the power to determine when to take it away. Fully autonomous weapons would thus threaten to undermine human dignity.

Third, many countries emphasized that weapons systems should always fall under “meaningful human control.” While the parameters of this concept will require careful definition, obligating nations to maintain that control is vital to averting a watershed in the nature of warfare that could endanger civilians and soldiers alike.

Finally, countries frequently noted in their statements the relevance of international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law. Human rights law applies in peace and war, and it would govern the use of these weapons not only on the battlefield but also in law enforcement operations. In a new report released last week, Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic found that fully autonomous weapons could contravene the rights to life and a remedy as well as the principle of dignity.

Legal Debate

The most contentious part of the discussion surrounded the application of international humanitarian law to fully autonomous weapons. The debate echoed many of the points raised in a second paper that Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic released at the meeting. “Advancing the Debate on Killer Robots” responds directly to 12 critiques of a ban on the weapons.

The meeting revealed a divergence of views about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Critics of a ban argue that problematic use of these weapons would violate existing law and that supplementary law is unnecessary. A new treaty banning the weapons, however, would bring clarity, minimizing the need for case-by-case determinations of lawfulness and facilitating enforcement. It would also increase the stigma against the weapon, which can influence even states not party to a treaty to abide by a ban. In addition, a treaty dedicated to fully autonomous weapons could address proliferation, unlike traditional international humanitarian law, which focuses on use.

The debate about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons is reminiscent of arguments made in earlier Convention on Conventional Weapons meetings about cluster munitions. The adoption of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions by 107 states resolved that dispute. Prohibitions on five other weapons that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm—antipersonnel landmines, blinding lasers, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and poison gas— provide additional precedent for new law. While most states are reserving judgment on the best solution to deal with the problems posed by fully autonomous weapons, five countries called for a ban last week.

Participants in the last week’s meeting also disagreed about when action should be taken. Critics of a ban supported a wait-and-see approach, arguing that improvements in technology could address the obstacles to compliance with international humanitarian law. There are serious doubts, however, that robots could ever replicate certain complex human qualities, such as judgment, necessary to comply with principles of distinction and proportionality. Furthermore, grave ethical concerns, the likelihood of proliferation and a robotic arms race, an accountability gap, and the prospect of premature deployment all suggest a technological fix would not suffice to address the weapons’ problems.

Action should be taken now before countries invest more in the technology and become less willing to give it up. The pre-emptive ban on blinding lasers in Protocol IV to the Convention on Conventional Weapons can serve as a useful model.

Next Steps

Despite some points of disagreement, the meeting advanced efforts to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Nations need to keep up momentum, however, to avoid having such meetings become what some have called a “talk shop.” In the short term, individual countries should establish national moratoria on fully autonomous weapons.

In November, the parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should adopt a mandate to study the issue in greater depth in 2015. They should agree to hold three to four weeks of formal meetings, known as a Group of Governmental Experts. They should also be clear that the meetings would be a step toward negotiating a new protocol on fully autonomous weapons. Such intense discussions would move the debate forward. They would show that the treaty members are committed to addressing this issue and that the Convention on Conventional Weapons is re-emerging as an important source of international humanitarian law.

Continue Reading…