An armed, remotely piloted drone in action.

An armed, remotely piloted drone in action.

The prospect of armed robots taking human lives, and whether to ban autonomous weapons before they are made, concentrated the minds of governmental and non-governmental delegates at a United Nations forum in Geneva in mid-April.

Strengthening the moral threshold against delegating machines to kill people is a core issue for many of the governments and civil society groups represented, including the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Another widely held concern is to ensure that all autonomous weapons will be judged by international humanitarian law and by international human rights law.  An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the meeting that new laws may also be needed.

The special session of the Convention on Conventional Weapons ended with considerable agreement on the need for further debate but something of a stand-off on what else is needed and how soon.  The United States and some of its allies argued that existing tools would suffice, namely, legal reviews of new weapons and more transparency about autonomous weapons systems.

But several civil society groups and several states called instead for steps leading to negotiations on a pre-emptive ban of autonomous weapons.   The civil society Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called for such a treaty to be in place by 2018.

Transparency that is voluntary and weapons reviews that are secret “are not nearly enough to deal with the multiple challenges posed,” the killer robots campaign said.

An inter-faith statement supporting a ban on autonomous weapons was circulated by WCC prior to the meeting. WCC commissioners of international affairs and members of the Ecumenical Peace Advocacy Network are joining the list of signatories from world religions.  The WCC Assembly in South Korea called for a pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons in 2013.

“For churches, it is critical to know who is deciding about lethal robots,” said Jonathan Frerichs, a WCC programme executive at the meeting.  “The views of well-armed states – wealthy countries most likely to have such weapons first – were conspicuous in last week’s debate.  They mostly called for a learn-as-we-go approach and against banning a weapon that does not exist yet.”

In contrast, a few participants, such as Pakistan and Palestine, were able to speak from experience about what attacks by a lethal autonomous robot might be like, Frerichs noted. “The victims of today’s unmanned semi-autonomous weapons are key witnesses to the dangers of developing fully autonomous weapons,” he said.

Semi-autonomous drones already enable armed force to be used “with few geographical or temporal boundaries”, said one panellist, Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

During debate the WCC raised the point that about half of all governments were not present, including many that have suffered armed violence and where the WCC has member churches.

In a conference paper on ethical questions, the Holy See noted that “It is intrinsically human to take responsibility for one’s actions.”

Robot weapons loitering overhead – “choosing and neutralizing targets at unexpected moments” – could be even more stressful than today’s aerial strikes, the Vatican said.  “Victor states who use these should think of the effects produced by maintaining a sort of robotized sword of Damocles hanging in permanence above the heads of the conquered.”

“There is reason to believe that autonomous weapons would be likely to increase opportunities for military interventions, extrajudicial assassinations, and terrorization of home populations,” Ray Acheson of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said in a report on the 13-17 April 2014 meeting.

The Geneva-based Convention on Conventional Weapons held a first “expert” meeting on autonomous weapons systems in 2014.  The convention normally makes decisions in November each year.

See signatories to the Interfaith Statement on Autonomous Weapons

Religious leaders urge ban on autonomous weapons