The disarmament sculpture at the UN. (Courtesy of Flickr user Licensed under Creative Commons.)

Building on successful campaigns to ban land mines and control the sale of conventional weapons, representatives of antiwar movements and a host of other civil society organizations meeting at the United Nations on June 6 turned their attention to a new menace whose development they hope to forestall: killer robots.

The briefing, sponsored by the Swiss government and the UN’s Department of Public Information NGO section, had a much broader agenda, as its title, taken from the preamble to the UN Charter, indicated: “Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” A theme soon emerged in the discussion between expert panelists and their audience, however: the potential power of civil society to force change in the way nations use and misuse war as government policy. The discussion turned to autonomous weapons.

The new campaign against “killer robots” is unique in that robotic weapons systems are still largely in development stages and under the control of human hands—even drone aircraft, while deployed without pilots or crew, are guided by military posts on the ground. Unlike the case of landmines, which were scattered around the world by the millions when the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator, Jody Williams, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, or the Arms Trade Treaty, designed to control a lethal existing global business worth $85 billion annually, the movement against robotic weapons has a chance to “nip in the bud” a new threat still in development, as a former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament, Jayantha Dhanapala, described it later. “This is doable,” he said in a conversation after the UN meeting.

Williams, who gave the most impassioned speech against autonomous weapons at the UN briefing, said that while nuclear disarmament and drone attacks are now important issues, “the greatest threat in the future is from killer robots.” The nightmare is not hard to imagine: even a small robotic “soldier” deployed in a tense urban area, “seeing” a teenage girl with a backpack full of books on her way home from school, could easily calculate the object as a suicide bomber.

Since its official launch on April 23 in London, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a movement against autonomous weapons and robot soldiers capable of choosing a target and attacking without human intervention, has taken off. Human Rights Watch, which released several reports or updates on the issue over the last year and was the initial coordinator of the campaign, has been joined by a number of other civil society groups. The campaign now has representatives in fifteen countries. Recently, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs has lined up behind the movement, said Dhanapala, now Pugwash’s president and a board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said in a message to the Human Rights Council, which debated robotic weapons on May 30: “The emergence of autonomous weapons calls into question the adequacy of measures to implement the rules of armed conflict that apply to all weapons systems…. There must be adequate human accountability at all times. Yet…how can accountability be maintained when humans are no longer involved in the final decision?”

The United States, which recently launched a pilotless combat jet from an aircraft carrier, is widely assumed to be leading research on robotic weapons, including robot soldiers. Christof Heyns, the independent special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report to the Human Rights Council in preparation for the May 30 debate that although “robots with full lethal autonomy” are not yet known to be deployed, numerous countries besides the United States also have or are developing robotic systems with the capacity for lethal uses, including Britain, China, Israel, Russia and South Korea.

In November 2012, the US Defense Department issued a policy directive pledging that (at least for ten years) a human being would always be part of decision-making if and when autonomous weapons use was being considered. Human Rights Watch said on May 28 that the US directive (Number 3000.09) “generally allows the Defense Department to develop or use only fully autonomous systems that deliver nonlethal force, unless department officials waive the policy at a high level. In effect, the directive constitutes the world’s first moratorium on lethal fully autonomous weapons.” This may or may not be a starting point for negotiation.

The Swiss ambassador, Paul Seger, a panelist at the UN briefing, moved onto another issue when he noted that this year marked the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Kellogg-Briand pact, the post–World War I agreement that legally banned war as national policy. “Did it end wars?” he asked. “No, but it laid the groundwork for making aggression a crime.” He reminded NGOs and others that a campaign to add aggression to the list of war crimes at the International Criminal Court also needs citizen support in prodding more governments to back that aggression amendment. “It would send a strong signal to leaders,” he said. Only a small number of additional government ratifications are needed to take this historic step in international law.

The cost in human lives and barriers to human development were illustrated powerfully at the start of the briefing in a short documentary made by the New York Downtown Community Television Center, with the help of Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal for Peace. During the panel presentations and general discussion that followed, there were repeated calls for peace education in schools, not only for students but also for teachers, so that they would understand the human toll.

A panelist, Nounou Booto Meeti, a Congolese-born lawyer and journalist who is now program officer of the Center for Peace, Security and Armed Violence Prevention in Birmingham, England, spoke of the disastrous long-term effects of militarism on societies that she has seen. “Today conflict and post-conflict areas have become home to epidemic diseases like malaria, typhoid, Ebola, cholera and other diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, insect-borne disease, HIV/AIDS and many others,” she said, speaking of regions where there is little time for debates about policy when daily survival is at stake. Militarism, she said, destroys everything around it: the natural environment, agricultural land, wildlife and social systems. It takes a very heavy toll on women.

Women lose their dignity, livelihoods and footing in society; children are denied their rights to education and a healthy life. “It has always been said that to educate a woman is to educate a nation,” she said. “And I will add today that destroying a woman is destroying a nation and its posterity.”

Due to sequester cuts, Head Start centers in rural America are closing. Read more in Greg Kaufmann’s This Week in Poverty.