Preventing the development of autonomous weapon systems
WILPF is working to prevent the development of autonomous weapon systems, also known as killer robots, which are weapons that would function without meaningful human control. Due to the moral, ethical, legal, political, and technical problems with the development and use of such weapons, we are working with tech workers and governments to ensure that the dystopian future promised by these new technologies of violence never comes to pass.
Autonomous weapons are different than armed drones. Drones, or “uncrewed aerial vehicles” (UAVs), are remotely piloted by humans. Human operators fly the drones by remote control, select targets, and choose when to fire upon those targets. A fully autonomous weapon would be programmed so that once it is deployed, it operates on its own. It would be able to select and fire upon targets all on its own, based upon its algorithms and data analysis programming. In essence, this means that machines would have the power to make life-and-death decisions over human beings.
Right now, more than 380 partly autonomous weapon systems have been deployed or are being developed in at least 12 countries, including China, France, Israel, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some military personnel or other government officials believe that killer robots would give them an advantage in battle while saving their own soldiers’ lives. They say these weapons will make calculations and decisions more quickly than humans, and that those decisions—in targeting and in attack—will be more accurate than those of humans. They also argue that the weapons will not have emotional responses to situations—they won’t go on a rampage out of revenge.
But many roboticists, scientists, tech workers, philosophers, ethicists, legal scholars, human-rights defenders, peace-and-disarmament activists, and governments of countries with less-advanced militaries have called for an international ban on the development of such weapons. They are concerned that these weapons will result in more civilian deaths, be unable to comply with international humanitarian law or human rights law, make war more likely, encourage an arms race, destabilise international relations, and have moral consequences such as undermining human dignity. While WILPF opposes all war and violence, there is something especially cynically abhorrent in the idea of human beings assigning killing to a technological creation. The taking of life requires human accountability, determined by morality and law. Without that we shirk our responsibilities and betray our common humanity.
WILPF is a founding member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of activists working to outlaw autonomous weapon systems. Reaching Critical Will is on the Steering Committee of the Campaign and contributes to the Campaign’s advocacy with governments and analysis of international meetings. We have monitored and reported on each of the UN meetings dealing with autonomous weapons. We produce a daily report at each meeting, deliver statements, participate in events, and work with other campaigners to encourage states to support a ban on autonomous weapons and the retention of meaningful human control over all weapon systems.
This guide is intended to equip WILPF members and other activists with information about the issue of autonomous weapons, providing information about WILPF's approach and the political process for a ban. It is a living document, updated periodically to reflect developments.
This toolkit provides information from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots about the key issues to consider about autonomous weapon systems, as well as tips and tricks for making change. It is meant to help engage those who are interested in helping to campaign for a ban on killer robots.
Ray Acheson, "COVID-19: The Risks of Relying on Technology to 'Save Us' From the Coronavirus," Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 15 April 2020
Ray Acheson, "To Preserve Our Humanity, We Must Ban Killer Robots," The Nation, 1 October 2018
WILPF statement to the CCW Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, 27 March 2019
WILPF statement to the Fifth CCW Review Conference, 12 December 2016
WILPF Statement to the CCW Meeting of High Contracting Parties, 12 November 2015