(London, 30 May 2013) The UK appeared isolated today during the first international debate on fully autonomous weapons, which took place at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Reacting to a report on ‘lethal autonomous robotics’ by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Prof. Christof Heyns, a wide and diverse group of states acknowledged that further debate is needed. The UK, however, said it considers that existing rules are sufficient on fully autonomous weapons and that it does not support an international ban.

It is meaningless and even disingenuous for the UK to say that existing rules are sufficient when there has been no public or parliamentary debate on autonomous weapons,” said Thomas Nash, Director of the UK weapons monitoring organisation Article 36. “Today’s ill-considered statement sounded like the UK trying to dodge discussion on what the rest of the world clearly sees as a fundamental shift in the way humans use violent force. We expect that the UK will reconsider its position and support international regulation on fully autonomous weapons.”

Given the widespread engagement at the United Nations today from a regionally significant group of states, including states with high-tech military industries, it appears likely that there will be some form of international process to regulate weapons that can select and engage targets without further human intervention. The Special Rapporteur has recommended that such a process be organised across the different relevant UN bodies given the range of aspects from human rights, IHL and disarmament and arms control.

The UK does not yet have a comprehensive policy on autonomous weapons, but has made statements in parliament and outlined its approach in a note by the Ministry of Defence. The UK has stated that “the operation of weapons systems will always be under human control” and that “no planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human“.

Whilst these statements are welcome and could form the basis of a strong policy to prevent the removal of humans from decisions to use lethal force, the government must provide further clarification to explain contradictions and ambiguities that could undermine the policy.

Already there are systems deployed where the weapon makes the final choice of target, if this is coupled with greater autonomy of movement and operation there will be fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots” in combat. These weapons would select and attack targets without human control.

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Notes:

Article 36 is a UK-based not-for-profit organisation working to prevent the unintended, unnecessary or unacceptable harm caused by certain weapons.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is an international coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to ban fully autonomous weapons. Article 36 is a founding member of the campaign.

Article 36 paper: Killer Robots: UK Government Policy on Fully Autonomous Weapons http://a36.co/15e3p08

UN expert report by Prof. Christof Heyns on ‘Lethal Autonomous Robotics’ http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A-HRC-23-47_en.pdf

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots synopsis of Heyns report http://a36.co/177qlBD

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