News Column

Countries Keep Options Open on Killer Robots at UN Rights Forum

May 30, 2013

A UN expert called Thursday for a moratorium on fully automatic weapons systems until legal questions of using such killer robots are cleared, but he received only a muted response at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

No country currently uses technology that takes decisions to kill without any human involvement, but several countries, including the United States, are developing such systems, said Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

"It is my considered opinion that in the same way that the taking of any human life deserves as a minimum some deliberation, a decision to allow machines to be deployed to kill human beings worldwide ... deserves a collective pause," he told the council.

Many countries at the UN body agreed with Heyns that international discussions were needed on several questions, including whether countries with so-called lethal autonomous robots would start wars more easily, who could be held accountable for the actions of machines and whether such arms could fall into the hands of terrorists.

However, almost none of the countries expressed support for a moratorium.

EU members said in a joint statement that Heyns' report was "of potential interest to the international community" but was a matter of the law of conflicts rather than human rights and should, therefore, not be discussed at the Human Rights Council.

The US called on countries to decide in a "lawful, prudent and responsible manner" whether to use fully autonomous weapons systems.

The US is currently employing missile defence systems that operate autonomously under human supervision. Israel, Britain and South Korea also have weapons that operate with various degrees of autonomy, Heyns said.

Cuba and Sierra Leone backed Heyns' proposed moratorium.

Pakistan went further and called for an outright ban.

"We believe that the experience with drones demonstrates that once these technologies are developed and operationalized, it is almost impossible to restrict their use," said the envoy from Pakistan, which estimated that the US campaign using unmanned aircraft over its territory has killed at least 2,200 people, including at least 400 civilians, since 2004.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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