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Time to Ban Killer Robots? Considering an International Convention on Robotic Weapons

Matthew Bolton - 2nd October 2012
Time to Ban Killer Robots?

Influential counterterrorism reporter Peter Bergen called for a treaty regulating the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called drones, in an editorial for CNN Monday, written with Jennifer Rowland:

"The time has come for some kind of international convention on the legal framework surrounding the uses of such weapons, which promise to shape the warfare of the future as much as tanks and bombers did during the 20th century."

Documenting the chilling proliferation of military drones, Bergen and Rowland argue that "As drone technology becomes more widely accessible, it is only a matter of time before well-financed drug cartels acquire them. And you can imagine a day in the not too distant future where armed drones are used to settle personal vendettas."

They also raise concerns about the covert US drone strikes, such as those in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, saying that:

"Without an international framework governing the use of drone attacks, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent for other nations with its aggressive and secretive drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen, which are aimed at suspected members of al Qaeda and their allies."

Their editorial comes just days after reports from three influential law schools -- Columbia, NYU and Stanford -- raised serious reservations about the civilian impact of drone strikes. (For an earlier blog posting on the humanitarian impact of drones, click here).

Bergen's call for a drone treaty is a welcome development for those campaigning for recognition of the troubling far-reaching implications of uninhabited weapons. However, I believe we must go one step further. Aerial drones are merely one of the more noticeable examples of an emerging class of robotic weapons that are stretching our ability to enforce and strengthen humanitarian law.

I believe we need an international treaty governing the production, trade, transfer and use of all robotic weaponry, with the following key principles (my personal adaptation and expansion of a 2009 statement by the International Committee for Robot Arms Control):

1. Prohibition of the sale or transfer of robotic weapons, related technologies and munitions, to countries and armed groups that commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law;

2. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of armed autonomous unmanned systems that make decisions to kill without a “human-in-the-loop”;

3. Prohibition of arming unmanned systems with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or blinding lasers;

4. Prohibition of the development, deployment and use of robot space weapons;

5. Limitations on the range and weapons carried by remotely operated unmanned systems (such as Predator and Reaper drones) and on their deployment in postures threatening to other states;

6. Limitations on the deployment and use of remotely operated and autonomous systems to ensure discrimination and proportionality in targeting, to prevent civilian casualties and limit psycho-social harm;

7. Recognition of the rights of survivors of robotic weapon violence (including civilian victims of drone strikes) and provision of victim assistance;

8. Transparent reporting on sale and transfer of robotic weapons.

Let’s begin the discussion here, in the comments section below. Do you think a treaty is needed to govern drones and other robotic weapons? What would such a treaty cover? How would it be monitored and enforced?