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Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

The End of Humanity in International Humanitarian Law?

Joanna L. D. Wilson, University of Glasgow, UK

This paper argues that Lethal Autonomous Weapons System(LAWS) threaten to undermine the importance of humanity in International Humanitarian Law(IHL). The extent to which current IHL can provide for the regulation of LAWS is questioned, given that IHL assumes a degree of human agency, referring continually to “persons” in its provisions. It is argued that, to stretch this term to encompass a machine would be legally and ethically controversial at best. The importance of the human element in a soldier’s work (a great deal more than fighting alone) is examined, questioning whether a robot ought to, or indeed is at all able to, replace a human soldier in every aspect of his or her duties. The protective concepts governing warfare (Indiscriminate Attack, Unnecessary Suffering…) and the moral and analytical awareness they require, together with the ethical considerations that humanise the decision to go to war, are highlighted. Accordingly, the paper asks, even if, on a technical, and technological level, LAWS could, through the application of complex algorithms, effectively abide by the rules of IHL, ought the power over a human’s life be granted to a machine? This discussion will then be developed to illuminate broader concerns regarding the future of warfighting, the future of International Humanitarian Law and its ability to successfully and effectively regulate contemporary means of warfare, calling into question the ability of the law, as the UK Attorney General recently articulated it, to “protect our most ancient freedoms from the most modern dangers.”