Cybersecurity & Tech

Greg McNeal on Human Rights Watch and "Killer Robots"

Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, February 28, 2013, 6:51 AM
Over at, Greg McNeal takes a break from guest blogging for Lawfare to body slam Human Rights Watch over its "killer robots" campaign.

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Over at, Greg McNeal takes a break from guest blogging for Lawfare to body slam Human Rights Watch over its "killer robots" campaign. Last week, I published a grass roots letter from Human Rights, along with Tom Malinowski's candid reflections on how its tone jives with Tom's desire for a "serious conversation" on the subject of autonomy in robotic weapon systems. Greg takes on Tom's response at some length and with a lot of a examples:
I found it curious that Malinowski chalked the language used in the petition up to a “fundraising appeal” designed “to build grassroots support.” In fact, the language used in the email mirrors the language used in HRW’s other products related to autonomous systems. With that said, Malinowski’s candor about the kind of activism Human Rights Watch is involved in was impressive.  He admits that the group is focused on ensuring policy makers know that the public will be “horrified” about feared outcomes---to me, that pretty nicely sums up what a fear campaign is all about. The record, and Malinowski’s quote demonstrates that HRW’s approach to this issue is premised on using scare tactics to simplify and amplify messages when the “legal, moral, and technological issues at stake are highly complex.” Chalking it up to some emails really undersells the point. The killer robots meme is central to their campaign and their expert analysis. Malinowski says: “We are far from having ‘killer robots’ deployed on the battlefield and interacting with mothers of children, and some phrases (like ‘taking humans out of battle’) are obviously imprecise.”  But those phrases (killer robots and taking humans out of battle and even the mother and child scenario) aren’t just in the e-mail campaign. Consider this HRW video, entitled “Pull the Plug on Killer Robots“  Throughout the video the phrases mentioned in the email above are uttered by HRW staff experts, not the anonymous drafters of email campaigns and petitions. . . . Lest I be accused of cherry-picking HRW’s quotes.  Steve Goose has a post entitled The Future of Global Warfare: Killer Robots. In the post he writes “Despite a lack of public awareness and public debate a number of governments, including European states, are pushing forward with the development of fully autonomous weapons – also known as killer robots.”  The “also known as” line links to the HRW topic page entitled (naturally) "killer robots.” It seems clear that creating the “killer robots” meme is a central goal of HRW’s experts, not just the fundraisers and the grassroots activists.  He also states “Killer robots would be unable to distinguish adequately between combatants and civilians in the increasingly complex circumstances of modern battlefields, and would be unable to make proper proportionality determinations.” and “Killer robots would lack the human qualities necessary to protect civilians and comply with international humanitarian law.” and “With killer robots, the human is out-of-the-loop and the machine determines what to attack and when.” and “Killer robots need to be stopped now, before it is too late and their march from science fiction to reality becomes irreversible.”  Regarding taking humans out of battle he wrote “The precursors demonstrate the rapid movement toward autonomy and replacing humans on the battlefield.” (all bolding is mine)  The point, the fear meme is central to their advocacy strategy and it’s part and parcel of their expert commentary.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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