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Heed the Call: A Moral and Legal Imperative to Ban Killer Robots

This report explains the need to center debates on fully autonomous weapons around the two elements of the Martens Clause: the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

Fully autonomous weapons are one of the most alarming military technologies under development today. As such there is an urgent need for states, experts, and the general public to examine these weapons closely under the Martens Clause, the unique provision of international humanitarian law that establishes a baseline of protection for civilians and combatants when no specific treaty law on a topic exists. This report shows how fully autonomous weapons, which would be able to select and engage targets without meaningful human control, would contravene both prongs of the Martens Clause: the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. To comply with the Martens Clause, states should adopt a preemptive ban on the weapons’ development, production, and use.

As CCW states parties assess fully autonomous weapons and the way forward, the Martens Clause should be a central element of the discussions. The clause, which is a common feature of international humanitarian law and disarmament treaties, declares that in the absence of an international agreement, established custom, the principles of humanity, and the dictates of public conscience should provide protection for civilians and combatants. The clause applies to fully autonomous weapons because they are not specifically addressed by international law. Experts differ on the precise legal significance of the Martens Clause, that is, whether it reiterates customary law, amounts to an independent source of law, or serves as an interpretive tool. At a minimum, however, the Martens Clause provides key factors for states to consider as they evaluate emerging weapons technology, including fully autonomous weapons. It creates a moral standard against which to judge these weapons.

This publication can be found on the Human Rights Watch website here.

In cases not covered by this Protocol or by other international agreements, civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.
Martens Clause, as stated in Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions

Human Rights Watch

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