U.N. official calls for study of ethics, legality of unmanned weapons

By Patrick Worsnip
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 12:05 AM

UNITED NATIONS - A United Nations investigator called on the world body Friday to set up a panel to study the ethics and legality of unmanned military weapons - an apparent reference to U.S. drones that have targeted suspected Islamist militants.

In a report to the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee, Christof Heyns said such systems raised "serious concerns that have been almost entirely unexamined by human rights or humanitarian actors."

"The international community urgently needs to address the legal, political, ethical and moral implications of the development of lethal robotic technologies," said Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

It was the second time this year that a U.N. official has brought up the issue. In June, Heyns's predecessor, Philip Alston, called for a halt to CIA-directed drone strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Alston said that killings ordered far from the battlefield could lead to a "PlayStation" mentality. The CIA contested his findings, saying - without confirming it carried out the strikes - that its operations "unfold within a framework of law and close government oversight."

Heyns, a South African law professor, said Friday that there was a need to discuss responsibility for civilian casualties, how to ensure that the use of robots complied with humanitarian law, and standards for developing the technology involved.

He added that the United Nations should take a lead on the issue, and he urged Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to convene a group of national representatives, human rights experts, philosophers, scientists and developers to promote a debate on the legal and moral implications of robotic weapons.

Among the issues it should study is "the fundamental question of whether lethal force should ever be permitted to be fully automated," he added.

- Reuters

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