Autonomous & nuclear weapons systems: the humanitarian dimensions

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We are witnessing shifts in the global security debate as nations are beginning to emphasize human security in the face of far reaching advancements in military technology. The recent development of autonomous weapons systems or lethal autonomous robots (LAR) that are being manufactured without a “human in the loop” have triggered serious ethical concerns and as a result, civil society and NGOs began talks in Geneva last year on the humanitarian implications. Parallels can be drawn with the nuclear weapons debate, as governments and civil society groups have acted as key advocates in bringing forth the humanitarian dimensions and consequences of these weapons in the recent conference in Nayarit, Mexico. The principle of distinction derived from International Humanitarian Law, which states that parties to a conflict must at all times be able to distinguish between civilians and combatants, helps delineate the key humanitarian dimensions in the disarmament debates of both autonomous robots and nuclear weapons.

Current systems used for warfare contains a “human in the loop” for operating, controlling, and deciding when to target. This, however, is beginning to change with the continued development towards unmanned aircraft and autonomous robots that are now being used and developed by countries such as the U.S. and U.K. Seemingly out of a science fiction novel, these “futuristic” robots are machines that will not need any human involvement once being activated on the battlefield. The machines will make “judgements” on their own, even on decisions of when to attack.

The state-of-the-art technology of autonomous robots has aroused moral concerns about placing human lives in the hands of robots which lack vital civilized components, namely: human compassion and human judgement. It further degrades the act of killing and opens the way for mistakes. Humanitarian activists campaigning against the manufacturing and use of these weapons have emphasized that a robot would not have the capacity of fulfilling the tenants of distinction. It seems unlikely that autonomous robots would have the ability to distinguish a civilian from a combatant, especially since some countries (the U.S. and Israel included) often camouflage soldiers as civilians, in order to blend into the rest of the community. Machines will never be able to possess the human emotions or characteristics required to assimilate the intentions of an individual. In addition, robots would have only limited capacity: their lasers, sensors and sonars may be sufficient to recognize a human, but not be capable of differentiating them, especially in a populated urban setting. The problem appears to be that there is no specific “computer code” to define a civilian in order to integrate it into the robot’s system. Drawing the line between a civilian and a combatant requires sophisticated judgement and training.

Several coalitions of NGOs gathered in November 2013 in Geneva, with the hopes of raising awareness and preventing the development of these machines before they become prolific. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has urged governments that are members of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to discuss the issues related to lethal autonomous robots. They intend to advocate for a pre-emptive ban.

Similar humanitarian considerations are also present in the nuclear weapons debate. Nuclear bombs are almost inevitably indiscriminate in their effects, due to their sheer scale of destructive capability. It could be judged unlawful since it would cause “superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering”, which is proscribed under article 35 of the additional protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions (international law that delineates the humanitarian aspect in times of war). Beyond the lives immediately at risk, the radiation exposure from a nuclear explosion would severely impact the environment for current and future generations with implications for food and environmental and health security.

Within the nuclear weapons debate, civil society organisations have also played a pivotal role in working towards the elimination of these weapons. Efforts to highlight the humanitarian dimensions were in full force on February 13-14th in Nayarit, Mexico for the second conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. 146 nations, 119 civil society organizations (BASIC was represented by Senior Fellow Ward Wilson), and 10 international organizations participated in the conference. International and local experts convened to discuss the aspects of nuclear weapons in terms of public health, global climate change, food security, economic growth, among others. As the host nation, Mexico highlighted the importance of a diplomatic process geared towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Missing from the conference however, were the the NPT’s five nuclear weapon states--the U.K., U.S., France, China, and Russia. The five chose not to attend last year’s conference on this same issue in Oslo, believing these discussions were a tactical way to force through an international ban on these weapons.

The debates on nuclear weapons and autonomous robots highlight the competitive drive that exists amongst nations, and their strong reliance on weapons and their technological development as a vital instrument for maximizing their own security and position in the world. But the expansion and coordination of civil society, NGOs, and international institutions have accomplished outstanding goals in highlighting the dangers of these weapon systems and their unchecked development and deployment. They are pushing governments to reassess their priorities by encompassing the humanitarian dimension on a global scale. Strategies that involve the threat of nuclear weapons use or the acquisition of autonomous robots will increasingly need to take account of the humanitarian dimension and responsibility towards the international community of states and people.

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