This year, for the first time, a majority of the 125 nations that belong to an agreement called the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons said they wanted curbs on killer robots. But they were opposed by members that are developing these weapons, most notably the United States and Russia.
- Killer robots drones, guns and bombs that decide on their own, with artificial brains, whether to attack and kill — and what should be done, if anything, to regulate or ban them.
- Killer robots, more technically known as Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, have been invented and tested at an accelerated pace with little oversight. Some prototypes have even been used in actual conflicts.
- The evolution of these machines is considered a potentially seismic event in warfare, akin to the invention of gunpowder and nuclear bombs.
- Opinions differ on an exact definition, but they are widely considered to be weapons that make decisions with little or no human involvement.
- Rapid improvements in robotics, AI and image recognition are making such armaments possible.
- The drones the United States has used extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are not considered robots because they are operated remotely by people, who choose targets and decide whether to shoot.
Why are they considered attractive?
- To war planners, the weapons offer the promise of keeping soldiers out of harm’s way, and making faster decisions than a human would, by giving more battlefield responsibilities to autonomous systems like pilotless drones and driverless tanks that independently decide when to strike.
What are the objections?
- Critics argue it is morally repugnant to assign lethal decision making to machines, regardless of technological sophistication.
- How does a machine differentiate an adult from a child, a fighter with a bazooka from a civilian with a broom, a hostile combatant from a wounded or surrendering soldier?
What do opponents of a new treaty say?
- Some, like Russia, insist that any decisions on limits must be unanimous — in effect giving opponents a veto.
- The United States argues that existing international laws are sufficient and that banning autonomous weapons technology would be premature.
Where have autonomous weapons been used?
- There are not many verified battlefield examples, but critics point to a few incidents that show the technology’s potential.
- In March, UN investigators said a “lethal autonomous weapons system” had been used by government-backed forces in Libya against militia fighters.
- A drone called Kargu-2, made by a Turkish defense contractor, tracked and attacked the fighters as they fled a rocket attack, according to the report, which left unclear whether any human controlled the drones.
- In the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan fought Armenia with attack drones and missiles that loiter in the air until detecting the signal of an assigned target.
- Fundamentally, autonomous weapon systems raise ethical concerns for society about substituting human decisions about life and death with sensor, software and machine processes.
Back to Basics
What is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons?
- Sometimes known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, it is a framework of rules that ban or restrict weapons considered to cause unnecessary, unjustifiable and indiscriminate suffering, such as incendiary explosives, blinding lasers and booby traps that don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians.
- The convention has no provisions for killer robots.
- A total of 50 States signed the Convention, which entered into force on 2 December 1983. Currently there are one hundred States Parties to the treaty, with six additional signatories that have not yet ratified the Convention. These six countries are Afghanistan, Egypt, Iceland, Nigeria, Sudan and Vietnam.
- India has signed and ratified the convention.
- The convention covers land mines, booby traps, incendiary devices, blinding laser weapons and clearance of explosive remnants of war.
- The convention has five protocols:
- Protocol I restricts weapons with non-detectable fragments
- Protocol II restricts landmines, booby traps
- Protocol III restricts incendiary weapons
- Protocol IV restricts blinding laser weapons (adopted on October 13, 1995, in Vienna)
- Protocol V sets out obligations and best practice for the clearance of explosive remnants of war, adopted on November 28, 2003, in Geneva
Objectives of Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
- The aim of the Convention and its Protocols is to provide new rules for the protection of civilians from injury by weapons that are used in armed conflicts and also to protect combatants from unnecessary suffering.
- The convention covers fragments that are undetectable in the human body by X-rays, landmines and booby traps, and incendiary weapons, blinding laser weapons and the clearance of explosive remnants of war.
- Parties to the convention must take legislative and other actions to ensure compliance with the convention.
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