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Making the Case – The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban

14th December 2016


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The debate about fully autonomous weapons has continued to intensify since the issue reached the international stage four years ago.[1] Lawyers, ethicists, military personnel, human rights advocates, scientists, and diplomats have argued, in a range of venues, about the legality and desirability of weapons that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control over individual attacks. Divergent views remain as military technology moves toward ever greater autonomy, but there are mounting expressions of concern about how these weapons could revolutionize warfare as we know it. This report seeks to inform and advance this debate by further elaborating on the dangers of fully autonomous weapons and making the case for a preemptive ban.

In December 2016, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will convene in Geneva for the treaty’s Fifth Review Conference and decide on future measures to address “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (LAWS), their term for these weapons. Spurred to act by the efforts of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, CCW states have held three informal meetings of experts on LAWS since 2014. At the Review Conference, states parties should agree to establish a Group of Governmental Experts. The formation of this formal body would compel states to move beyond talk and create the expectation of an outcome. That outcome should be a legally binding prohibition on fully autonomous weapons.


To build support for a ban, this report responds to critics who have defended the developing technology and challenged the call for a preemptive prohibition. The report identifies 16 of the critics’ key contentions and provides a detailed rebuttal of each. It draws on extensive research into the arguments on all sides. In particular, it examines academic publications, diplomatic statements, public surveys, UN reports, and international law.

The report updates a May 2014 paper, entitled “Advancing the Debate on Killer Robots,” and expands it to address new issues that have surfaced over the past two years.[2] In the process, the report illuminates the major threats posed by fully autonomous weapons and explains the advantages and feasibility of a ban.


The first chapter of this report elaborates on the legal and non-legal dangers posed by fully autonomous weapons. The weapons would face significant obstacles to complying with international humanitarian and human rights law and would create a gap in accountability. In addition, the prospect of weapons that could make life-and-death decisions generates moral outrage, and even the expected military advantages of the weapons could create unjustifiable risks.

The second chapter makes the case for a preemptive prohibition on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. Of the many alternatives proposed, only an absolute ban could effectively address all the concerns laid out in the first chapter. The ban should be adopted as soon as possible, before this revolutionary and dangerous technology enters military arsenals. Precedent from past disarmament negotiations and instruments shows that the prohibition is achievable and would be effective.

Report by the Human Rights Watch

  • Making the Case – The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban
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