Killer robots in the 26th Human Rights Council

Last week, the Human Rights Council closed its 26th session that took place from 10-27 June 2014 in Geneva. On Thursday, 12 June 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Professor Christof Heyns, presented his 2014 Report to the Council. While this year’s report focuses mainly on the protection of the right to life during law enforcement and the need for domestic law reform, it addresses remotely piloted aircraft or armed drones and emerging autonomous weapons systems (AWS).

Since the first UN Special Rapporteur report dealing with AWS was released in April 2013, much of the debate over AWS has focused on the weapons’ potential role in armed conflict, raising questions over whether the weapons would be able to comply with international humanitarian law. However over the past months various actors have expressed concerns about the human rights implications of AWS.

In the three paragraphs given to AWS in the 26th session report, Professor Heyns reiterated his call on states to impose moratoria on the development and use of AWS both in armed conflict as well as law enforcement contexts. While he commended the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) expert meeting in May 2014 and other UN agencies and bodies for their work on AWS, he also stressed that the Council should remain seized with the issue and engaged with the disarmament structure

Indicating that the Council is mandated to act upon this type of issue, Professor Heyns states under the report’s section on armed drones that “[o]utside of the narrow confines of armed conflict, any killing must meet the requirements of human rights law, and be strictly necessary and proportionate.” Similarly, at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s HRC side event on 11 July, Professor Heyns highlighted that prevention of human rights violations lies within the mandate of the HRC and further development of AWS could have devastating effects on human lives and dignity in the future.

Nine countries addressed the issue of AWS in their statements to the Council—Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Pakistan, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, and United States.


Cuba welcomed the attention the Special Rapporteur attributed to AWS and Brazil, the OIC, and Pakistan agreed that the Council should remain seized with the issue. Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, on the other hand, stressed that AWS as well as other weapons issues should be dealt with in UN disarmament fora such as the CCW. Both China and Russia expressed their interest in the discussions, yet did not specify their positions on this matter. Previously, during the first CCW meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems in May this year, a number of countries noted the relevance of international human rights law in their statements, including Brazil, Croatia, Egypt, the Holy See, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. 

On 26 June 2014, the HRC unanimously adopted the extension of the mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions for another three years. Among other things, it calls on the Special Rapporteur to “continue to examine situations … where early action might prevent further deterioration.” Thus, the discussion on AWS might continue in the HCR next year.

Recalling the UN Special Rapporteur’s first report, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urged states to develop and articulate national policy on AWS and to work for a a pre-emptive ban on the development, production, and use of AWS, or—as an interim measure—the call by the UN Special Rapporteur for a moratorium on these weapons. The Campaign also urged states to support substantive discussions in all relevant fora such as the HRC and the CCW.

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