'Necessary and Urgent': Human Rights Watch Renews Push for Killer Robot Treaty

GUEST COMMENTARY - Noting that countries have been discussing a treaty banning autonomous weapons systems for nearly a decade "with no tangible results,"

Human Rights Watch on Thursday renewed calls—and outlined alternative strategies—for a global agreement prohibiting the development of so-called "killer robots."

The 40-page report, which was co-published with Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, posits that "rather than accepting continuing stagnation" while trying to reach a deal within the framework of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), proponents of a legally binding instrument for banning killer robots should try something new.

"The longer the killer robots issue stays stuck in the current forum, the more time developers of autonomous weapons systems have to hone new technologies and achieve commercial viability," HRW senior arms researcher Bonnie Docherty said in a statement. "A new treaty would help stem arms races and avoid proliferation by stigmatizing the removal of human control."

"A new international treaty that addresses autonomous weapons systems needs a more appropriate forum for negotiations," Docherty, who is also associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Human Rights Clinic, added. "There's ample precedent to show that an alternative process to create legal rules on killer robots is viable and desirable, and countries need to act now to keep pace with technological developments."

HRW proposes negotiating a killer robot ban via the United Nations General Assembly—how the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons began life—or even independently from the U.N. altogether, an avenue that led to the treaties banning anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions.

According to HRW:

In October, 70 countries expressed their support for "internationally agreed rules and limits" on autonomous weapons systems in a joint statement to the U.N. General Assembly's First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

There have also been more expressions of support for regulation from industry. In October, Boston Dynamics and five other robotics companies pledged not to weaponize their advanced mobile robots and called on others to "make similar pledges not to build, authorize, support, or enable the attachment of weaponry to such robots."

The October statement stressed that a killer robot accord is "necessary, urgent, and achievable." However, major military powers including the United States and Russia oppose such a treaty.

"With major military powers getting ever closer to developing these dangerous systems, alternative options need to be pursued," the HRW report concludes. "It is time for states to initiate a process elsewhere to negotiate a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems."

(Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this article was first published.)