Killer Robots

By Miriam Struyk, Program Director for Security and Disarmament, IKV Pax Christi 


They are technically ingenious, they are relentless and tireless, and they will change the face of the battlefield forever. While we are barely accustomed to the frequent use of armed drones, their even more frightening successors are about to arrive: killer robots, i.e. fully autonomous weapons. These weapon systems would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. According to UN Rapporteur Heyns: “We are on the dangerous threshold of investing in machines the power to make autonomous life-or-death decisions over humans.” Therefore, the discussion whether these weapons are desirable or not, should start now.


Science Fiction or Science?
Although the killer robots do not yet exist, several states – such as China, Russia, Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom – have expressed their interest in these weapon systems. Some of their precursors are already in use. For instance, the US Harpy is a UAV with a high degree of autonomy since it flies, searches and engages a target without human control. Furthermore, the Iron Dome, the X-47B and the Taranis are all automatic weapon systems. So far, these precursors rely on human decision making, but experts expect them to be able to choose targets and fire without human intervention within 20 to 30 years.


The major danger with these weapons is that, according to IKV Pax Christi, it is unlikely that they will be able to abide by international humanitarian law – distinction, proportionality, and military necessity – and international human rights law. Autonomous robots would lack human judgment and the ability to understand context. These human qualities are necessary to make complex legal choices on a dynamic battlefield. Moreover, distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law, has already become increasingly difficult in contemporary warfare in which insurgents blend in with the civilian population. The deployment of killer robots in these circumstances would undermine the protection of civilians and armed conflict.
In addition, the use of fully autonomous weapons raises serious questions of accountability. It is unclear who can be held accountable for the actions of a killer robot. Is it the maker, the programmer, the commander, or the robot itself? Because there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for the robot’s actions, the use of killer robots would create an accountability gap.

Furthermore, the political aspect of this development is that the threshold to go to war is lowered. If people can be completely replaced by machines and no bodybags will return from the battlefield, the decision to go to war becomes much easier.

Finally, the distance between the military and conflict regions will be so grave, that any human sense of involvement and responsibility for the conflicts is in danger of disappearing. In the case of remote-controlled drones, it is unclear whether the operators are capable of sufficiently distinguishing between a game and reality. When using killer robots, the distance between the virtual world and the real worlds is even larger. This will not encourage people to find political solutions for conflicts.


Frequently used arguments in favor of killer robots are that they will be less costly on the long-term because they replace soldiers, and that they will be more effective because they can “think” faster than humans and will not act out of fear or anger. Also, it is often claimed that replacing human soldiers with killer robots will save military lives. However, it should not be forgotten that human emotions also provide one of the best safeguards against killing civilians, and that these military lives can only be saved at the cost of making war even more deadly for civilians.

To preempt this situation IKV Pax Christi, together with eight other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Article 36, launched a campaign that aims to stop these weapons before they appear in national arsenals and in combat.


Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an international coalition of non-governmental organizations concerned with the implications of killer robots. The campaign, launched in April 2013 in London, calls for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. The prohibition should be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures. Since the start of the campaign the subject has received a lot of attention from the media as well as from governments.

On May 30 professor Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered his report on lethal autonomous robotics  (LARs) to the second session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Heyns recommends that states establish national moratoria on LARs, and calls for the establishment of a high level panel on LARs to articulate a policy for the international community on the issue. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots welcomed the report and organized a series of events in Geneva to urge all countries to welcome the report and endorse its recommendations. The campaign will continue to undertake actions and activities in order to achieve their ultimate goal: stop killer robots!

IKV Pax Christi naturally welcomes all Pax Christi sections and other civic groups that want to get involved in this campaign. In order to achieve a legally binding treaty, we need discussion on this issue at all levels (at schools and universities, in religious communities, and of course in the political arena). We need to undertake all kinds of advocacy and lobby work and we need to move fast. It is for sure not going to be easy, but with a broad and dedicated group of people, and a clear goal, we have a good chance of stopping this development before it is too late. On landmines and cluster munitions similar groups got active and reached a ban, which shows the strength of humanitarian disarmament campaigns. Perhaps we can this time actually prevent humanitarian harm caused by weapons before they are on the battle fields already. Please contact us to find out more on what you can do.


Follow the campaign via, Twitter and Facebook.


Read more about killer robots in the report Does Unmanned make Unacceptable?  And in the report Losing Humanity of Human Rights Watch and IHRC.