Bioethics Blogs

Killer robots, international law, and just war theory

[Continuing coverage of the UN’s 2015 conference on killer robots. See all posts in this series here.]

If the ongoing process of deliberation under the auspices of the United Nations is to result in new law limiting the autonomy of weapon systems, at some point there will need to be lawyers involved. Court was in session on Wednesday afternoon, and the usual rules governing the admissibility of evidence and arguments were in force.

As the debate began to ramp up about three years ago, a handful of law professors, notably Michael Schmitt and Jeffrey Thurnher (of the U.S. Naval War College) and Kenneth Anderson and Matthew Waxman (of American University and Columbia University, respectively), emerged among the first serious public advocates for autonomous weapons. If you’ve ever read law review articles, you know that they are heavy on arguments from precedent; new situations are to be adjudicated in terms of arguments and judgments from the past. For these lawerly defenders of killer robots, the main question seems to be whether autonomous weapons are prohibited by law that was written before the possibility of machines making lethal decisions, in place of soldiers or police, was even considered — outside of science fiction.

The legal debate is complicated by the distinctions between domestic law, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law (IHL, which nowadays is essentially synonymous with the “law of war” or the “law of armed conflict”). The convention under which these talks are being conducted is an IHL treaty, which might mean that even if it were to result in a broad ban on killer robots in interstate warfare, they might remain legal for intrastate use by police and by militaries in civil war.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.