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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


18th June 2014

"Autonomous Weapons Systems: The Future?" | A Public Lecture

Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

On 18th June 2014, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, delivered a public lecture on ‘Autonomous Weapons Systems: The Future?’ in front of a diverse audience from across the University and beyond.  The lecture was part of a two-day programme of events developing greater collaboration between CGHR, its associates, and this UN mandate.

Prof. Heyns, who is also Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, was appointed a Special Rapporteur by the Human Rights Council in 2010.  Since then he has worked on issues ranging from the policing of demonstrations and the death penalty to military drone-strikes.  He has also been at the forefront of the debate about the challenges for the laws and ethics of armed conflict posed by the development of Autonomous Weapons Systems (formerly known as Lethal Autonomous Robots). 

Unlike drones, which are operated—if at great distance—by a human pilot, these systems would be able to find, select, and engage targets without any further human input.  Proponents highlight that autonomous systems would be able to make life-and-death decisions with greater speed and precision, free of human fallibilities caused by fear, fatigue, revenge or cruelty.  Opponents brand the new technology “killer robots” and maintain that surrendering human control over the decision to kill constitutes a serious breach in the protection of human rights and dignity.

In a 2013 report to the UN, the Special Rapporteur warned that this technology ‘could have far-reaching effects on societal values, including fundamentally on the protection and the value of life and on international stability and security.’  He called on States to place national moratoria on the use of autonomous weapons until such time that the international community devises a regime for their control.

Last month the State parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons met in Geneva for the first inter-governmental debate on the subject.  Prof. Heyns presented at this meeting of experts, and during the lecture made reference to the progress made, including the concept of “meaningful human control”.  He proposed a number of possible criteria which might be used more accurately to define “meaningful” control, including the question of proximity in both time and space and the distinction between offensive and defensive systems.  He also pointed to the difficulties that lay ahead with respect to accountability regimes.



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Heyns Public Lecture Event poster (rev)