“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far.” — HRW’s Steve Goose
By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 20 2013 (IPS) – When international human rights groups launch a global campaign next week to ban “fully autonomous weapons”, they will follow in the footsteps of the highly-successful 1990s collective worldwide effort to ban anti-personnel landmines and blinding lasers.
The new campaign, to be launched in London, will be aimed primarily at the United States: the only country with a formal policy on fully autonomous weapons, also called “killer robots”, equipped with the capacity to choose and fire on targets without human intervention.
Asked about the tried and tested model campaign, Steve Goose, executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS, “Yes, we envision the ‘Campaign to Stop Killer Robots’ functioning in a similar fashion to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), as well as the Cluster Munitions Coalition.”
Killer robots are considered more deadly than the predator drone, the U.S. weapon of choice against suspected terrorists in the current wave of targeted killings, particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
According to HRW, fully autonomous weapons are in development in several countries and could be deployed within the next couple of decades.
Asked how drones differ from fully autonomous weapons, Goose said drones have a “man in the loop” – a human has remote control, a human selects the target and decides when to fire the weapon.”
A 50-page report titled “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots” released last November expressed concern over these fully autonomous weapons, which would inherently lack human qualities that provide legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians.
The report was jointly published by HRW and the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC).
“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far”, said Goose, pointing out that human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimising civilian deaths and injuries.
He said many of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deeply involved in the current efforts are part of the new campaign, although there are also some important new members.
“We are also looking at the prohibition on blinding lasers (1995 Protocol IV to the Convention on Conventional Weapons) as a model, in that it was also a pre-emptive ban, taking effect before the weapons were produced and fielded, as we are looking to do with fully autonomous weapons,” he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) led the charge on blinding lasers, said Goose, who was also chair of the ICBL and Cluster Munitions Coalition (ICBL-CMC).
Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, told IPS that following on the success of the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations last month, and without prejudice to the campaign to ban the semi-autonomous drones, “We must prevent high-tech militaries of the more developed countries producing and deploying killer robots making accountability under international humanitarian law impossible.
“I am happy that the Pugwash Conferences for Science & World Affairs is with the coalition of civil society groups that is launching this important campaign to pre-empt the production of a new generation of fully autonomous robotic weapons,” said Dhanapala, president of Pugwash, a think tank comprising scientists and decision makers against nuclear weapons, and which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.
The ICBL, a global network of more than 100 countries led by Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace prize in 1997, and the treaty prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 1999.
The United States is considered a leader in the technological development of killer robots, while several other countries, including China, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have also been involved in acquiring or developing the technology.
“Many experts predict that full autonomy for weapons could be achieved in 20 to 30 years, and some think even sooner,” HRW said.
In the November report, both HRW and IHRC called for an international treaty that would absolutely prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. They also called on individual nations to pass laws and adopt policies as important measures to prevent development, production, and use of such weapons at the domestic level.
Asked what countries will take the lead if a resolution to ban killer robots is brought before the United Nations, Goose told IPS the forum in which the issue of fully autonomous weapons will be taken up is an open question, and it is too early to answer.
He said it may depend on how the issue develops and what governments are leading the way.
“Likewise, it is too early to say what governments will want to champion this issue,” he added. “In our preliminary discussions, there are many governments that are very interested in and concerned about fully autonomous weapons.
“But we are at the very early stages — our campaign will not even be launched until next Tuesday,” he noted.
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