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Killer Robots, aka Lethal Autonomous Robotics, vs International Humanitarian Law. And the winner is … (part 2)

Published on 14 July 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

When we participate in a United Nations debate, we put on a new shirt. So did the Killer Robots when they went for examination in the Human Rights Council.

3. Lethal Autonomous Robotics, the chic version

Christof Heyns reaches similar conclusions, but for the sake of political correctness and convenience (after all, he is working for 193 nations) he retains some doubts and keeps a few windows open for further discussion.

According to him, the distinguished robots may not be able to distinguish civilians from combatants. This holds particularly true in times of unconventional warfare, where the characteristics of combatants and civilians are blurred. Intelligent, but unable to judge on their own [my note: a reasoning that is also valid for many humans, isn’t it?], Lethal Autonomous Robotics cannot accommodate the principle of proportionality, either. Not to mention that the principle of humanity in armed conflicts imposed to states by the Martens Clause can hardly be understood by non-humans.

The Special Rapporteur concludes that under certain circumstances, especially if used alongside human soldiers, Lethal Autonomous Robotics might not contravene international humanitarian law and international human rights law. However, they will most definitely denigrate the value of life itself and pose insurmountable challenges with regard to accountability and asymmetric warfare. Using Lethal Autonomous Robotics remains, after all, an issue of moral responsibility, as they dehumanise conflicts.

The Special Rapporteur calls for national moratoria on the production of Lethal Autonomous Robotics. In addition, states should reaffirm their adherence to international law in all activities surrounding robotic weapons, and disclose their internal weapon review systems.




4. What’s next?

Along those lines and other new ones, the debate will continue. One may not expect international humanitarian law to expand further to oppose a stronger resistance to the warrior robots, whatever we call them. Yet, one may hope that the early reflections in the UN system on the impact of the new weapons will eventually induce more caution. Moratoria sound like a decent and acceptable proposal, as we may not reasonably justify systematic planning for future wars outside our borders.

Yet, if you allow me to continue on the love line, Berthold Brecht was right when he said that war is like love – it always finds a way. Some actually believe that the new generation of weapons produced by human beings and meant to kill  enemies without direct human contact is a kind of progress after all. So, it is hard to believe that the fragile principles of distinction and proportionality will resist the assault of the military technologies and new interpretations of the principle of military necessity.

As diplomats, we have to be optimistic and do our best to protect the power of international humanitarian law. Yet, as diplomats, we know that there a third way.

Unwillingly what came to my mind as a conclusion for this text is a question which was frequently asked in the past:

Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances permitted under international law?

To this the International Court of Justice responded:

There is in neither customary nor conventional international law any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as such

I would not take the chance (as such) of asking the International Court of Justice a similar question. But, of course, I am ready to ask you.

Any volunteers?




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