Growing number of countries want ban on killer robots: ‘unethical and unacceptable’


Mary Wareham is involved in the deployment of weapons within HRW and leads the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. She says removing human control over the use of violence is seen by many countries as a “huge threat to humanity.”


According to Wareham, the only effective way to deal with that threat is an international treaty with a ban. “We have an ethical, legal and moral obligation. These kinds of weapon systems are unacceptable.”

For example, in 2017, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that during the tenure of US President Obama, between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen alone.

What are killer robots?

The name killer robots is generally used for weapon systems that operate unmanned or even without human intervention. In the latter case, they are controlled by algorithms that select the target of the attack.

That sounds like something out of a movie, but in recent years countries such as the United States, Israel, China, Russia and South Korea have regularly deployed flying and armed drones on their own.

The use of these types of weapons dates back to the Second World War. Both the German and Russian army then deployed remote-controlled mines and tanks. The German variant, for example, was still attached to a cable that was hundreds of meters long, but these techniques helped after the war with the development of systems that functioned more independently.

A remote controlled German mine in Russia, April 1994. Source: Bundesarchiv

The deployment of flying drones got underway in 1973 when Israel deployed one American-made against Egypt. The US has been using such unmanned aerial vehicles since the first Gulf War in 1991. It is estimated that the use of military drones costs the lives of thousands of people every year.

Due to technological progress in recent years, many unmanned drones now operate completely without the intervention of human observation or action. Something that human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch want a ban on.

At the end of last year, the Netherlands ordered four MQ-9 Reaper drones. It is possible to arm these, but that was not the intention at the time of purchase, according to Defense. When the drones are expected to be delivered by the end of this year, the unmanned aircraft will be used to gather intelligence during missions abroad or in the event of disasters. Team people on the ground are needed for deployment and control.

Human Rights Watch calls for “protecting humanity from this dangerous development” by “banning fully autonomous weapons.” To this end, the human rights organization provides two pillars:

  • Work with other concerned countries to promptly initiate negotiations for a new international treaty to maintain human control over the use of force and ban weapons systems where none are available
  • Create national laws and regulations that maintain human control in the use of force and prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons

Cluster bombs

In the past, similar international treaties and laws have banned different types of war equipment. For example, in 2008, when the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Dublin, Ireland, decided to ban cluster bombs. The treaty was signed by more than 100 countries, including the Netherlands.

Frank Slijper of the Dutch Pax Voor Vrede tells RTL News that the HRW report offers hope. “You are slowly seeing the mind grow ripe for talks towards legally binding standards.”

“Everyone agrees that it is undesirable for machines to find out targets and kill people based on algorithms,” says Slijper. “That is a future that no one sees as desirable.”

In 2019, the House of Representatives passed a motion by Sven Koopmans (VVD) for ‘control of the production, placement, distribution and deployment of new potential weapons of mass destruction’. Of all parties, only Forum for Democracy voted against.

Own initiatives in the Netherlands

Koopmans tells RTL Nieuws: “The parliamentary support for my motion was an important signal to the government, namely that the Netherlands should not participate alone.” According to Koopmans, our country must also take its own initiatives to regulate new weapons such as deadly robotics with artificial intelligence.

The MP points out a number of dangers of such autonomous weapons and that last year’s motion also calls for work on our own protection against such weapons. “Unlike nuclear weapons, they can be very cheap,” Koopmans explains. “And where agreements can still be made with countries and people can deter each other, that does not apply to terrorists.”

In the Human Rights Watch report, our country is on the list of some 100 countries that have shown interest in banning killer robots in recent years. Our government has been discussing this with other countries since 2013. According to Koopmans, there are ‘big, difficult questions that the Netherlands and the world should focus on’. “If a fully automatic attack is not allowed, a fully automatic defense is allowed? Where is the boundary between attack and defense? And how do we prevent private parties from using fully automatic combat robots, if the technology is freely available?”

Minister Blok was to speak about this at a NATO meeting last June, but it has been postponed until further notice due to corona. Koopmans says that the cabinet is now working on a consultation with experts to make progress with concrete proposals within the foreseeable future. “I urge you to be urgent because our safety is at stake.”

USA, Russia and China

In recent years, the United States, Russia, and China have for various reasons blocked renewed international legislation for weapons that act human intervention. Last year, the US and Russia called it “too early” for such a treaty. China wanted to ban the deployment, but not the development or sale.

There are now 30 countries worldwide that want a total ban on ‘killer robots’. These include Austria, Colombia, Egypt, Palestine, Mexico, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. The Netherlands is not one of these countries. Koopmans explains why: “A total ban on automatic weapons is not feasible, firstly because many important countries such as the US, China and Russia will never accept it. And secondly because we will need automatic technology to defend ourselves and our enemies. to deter. ”

Spirit from the bottle

He does hope that the “most terrible automatic weapons” will be banned. “But we must always take into account, for example, terrorists who do not care about a ban. That is why it is important to focus on strict, realistic rules that as many states as possible want to comply with. Then we can limit the spread.”

Pax Voor Vrede believes that the Dutch government ‘is not going far enough when push comes to shove,’ says Frank Slijper. He hopes and expects that the government will change tack if more countries support a ban, as was the case at the last minute with the ban on cluster bombs. Slijper adds a warning: “Be there early and don’t take action until the genie is already out of the bottle. The further such an arms race goes, the more difficult it is to slow it down.”

Human Lives

Due to the corona pandemic, the UN summit on weapons systems has been postponed for the time being. It was supposed to start today. For HRW, that is no reason to sit still and Wareham is drawing hope from the growing group of countries that want to tackle the killer robots. “Many governments share our concern about machines that end human lives. That demand for human control provides a basis for concerted action.”


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