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UN Calls For Moratorium On 'Killer Robots'

  • RFE/RL

A U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot is seen during an explosion of an improvised explosive device in Arghandab valley, northwest of Kandahar, in Afghanistan.

A U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal robot is seen during an explosion of an improvised explosive device in Arghandab valley, northwest of Kandahar, in Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON -- The top United Nations human rights expert has called for a global pause on developing and deploying killer robot soldiers, known as "lethal autonomous robots," or LARs.

In an appearance before the UN Human Rights Council on May 30, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, questioned the capability of autonomous robots to comply with international humanitarian law -- especially their ability to distinguish between combatants and innocent civilians to avoid collateral damage.

"War without reflection is mechanical slaughter," Heyns said.

Heyns said a system of legal accountability cannot be created to regulate actions of autonomous killing machines. He said no country currently uses killer robots but several, including the United States, are developing them.

Heyns said national moratoria should be in place until a global framework for the technology is established.

In November 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Harvard University issued a joint report citing U.S. military assessments that "by 2030 machine capabilities will have increased to the point that humans have become the weakest component in a wide array of systems and processes."

Steve Gross, arms division director of HRW, told RFE/RL that it was was the first major report on an issue that is only now beginning to get widespread attention.

He said autonomous lethal weapons pose "serious dangers to civilians" and the consequences of developing them have to be thought through.

"These are weapons that go beyond drones, they’re weapons that can function without any human intervention when it comes to what to target and when to pull the trigger on the battlefield."

Gross said HRW has endorsed the UN call for a moratorium on research and development and would like to see a preemptive prohibition on all autonomous killing weapons.

"They’re quite far along in developing even precursors to these fully autonomous weapons, which don’t exist in arsenals yet," Gross said. "And we came to the conclusion that these are weapons that should be preemptively prohibited. We think that they cross a moral and ethical line and also cross legal boundaries."

He said several member states on the Human Rights Council agreed that there is an urgent need to study the issue, and a few endorsed an immediate moratorium on development.

He said they acknowledged that although the weapons don't yet exist, "if you don't stop them now, it’s going to be very hard to do so later."

Nobel Laureate Jody Williams and other campaigners have also called for a ban on machines that attack targets independently of any human controller.

Written by Heather Maher in Washington based on RFE/RL reporting and reporting by dpa
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