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HRW: fully autonomous weapons must be internationally prohibited

[JURIST] Fully autonomous weapons, as opposed to the current remote-controlled drone weapons, must be internationally prohibited [press release], Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] said in a report [text] released Monday. The report is part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots [advocacy website] and is intended for government leaders that are meeting in Geneva this week for the third annual meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems. The attendees represent many of the countries that have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) [UN backgrounder]. The report, "Killer Robots and the Concept of Meaningful Human Control," focuses on the inherent dangers of relinquishing lethal power to a robot that would select and engage targets on its own. The weapons do not exist yet, but the fear has led to the discussion of the need to keep human control present.

In the arms arena, the term "meaningful human control" signifies control over the selection and engagement of targets, that is, the "critical functions" of a weapon. "This means when, where and how weapons are used; what or whom they are used against; and the effects of their use," according to Article 36, a UK nongovernmental organization. Humans should exercise control over individual attacks, not simply overall operations. Only by prohibiting the use of fully autonomous weapons can such control be guaranteed.
HRW urges meaningful human control because humans make these decisions while taking into account broad principles, past experiences, empathy and other emotions, and the value of life, all things that a machine could not truly comprehend. According to the group, human control also promotes compliance with international law and provides for accountability, whereas a robot acting autonomously leaves a gap where nobody could be blamed for unlawful acts. The desire for human control is also supported by precedent such as the Mine Ban Treaty, prohibiting victim-activated landmines, and the prohibition on chemical and biological weapons. HRW is asking for an international prohibition on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons.

The use of drones [JURIST backgrounder] is controversial in both the international arena and in domestic circles. In January the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] ruled [order, PDF] that the president's National Security Council (NSC) [official website] is not subject [JURIST report] to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [official website]. In November the Second Circuit ruled that the US government may keep secret memoranda [JURIST report] related to the legal justification for the use of drones for targeted killings of those in other countries believed to be involved in terrorism. The case was the result of FOIA requests by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] and the New York Times [official website] for documents prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel of the US Department of Justice [official website] regarding the drone strikes. In June 2015 the families of two Yemeni men killed by US drone strikes filed a lawsuit [JURIST report] against the government, claiming they were wrongfully killed. In December 2010 a judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit [JURIST report] challenging the Obama administration's ability to conduct targeted killings [JURIST backgrounder], a challenge spurred because one subject of a targeted killing, al-Awlaki-Khan, was a dual US-Yemeni citizen.

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