Summer Ibrahim*

Humankind can inflict pain on its own species through a diverse toolset, ranging from our bare hands to remote-controlled drones. Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, otherwise known as ‘LAWS’, can render the decision of kill or not kill completely independent of any human control. These weapons are still under development, though research and the base technology are well underway.

If this technology becomes a common reality, there will likely be a disproportionate impact on the human rights of individuals living in the Global South. Historically, lower-income countries experience conflict-related violence more significantly in, and conventional weapons have already had a greater impact on their populations. The harms that LAWS could inflict on these populations alone are sufficient grounds for their prohibition.

What are ‘LAWS’?

LAWS are weapon systems with autonomy in their critical functions. LAWS can independently select, search for, detect, and engage targets without human intervention. After their initial launch, LAWS, using their own sensors, software, and weaponry, independently render the decision to engage or not to engage a target. LAWS can take many shapes, from large robots modeled like human soldiers to small, bug-shaped gadgets capable of mass destruction.

Image: Slaughterbots/ Youtube

Do LAWS decrease or increase human bias?

LAWS have raised serious debates concerning their legal and ethical implications. Their supporters opine that LAWS can be more ‘ethical’, or at least more utilitarian, than human combatants, as LAWS may be better suited to assess targets, thereby minimizing casualties. Their skeptics, on the other hand, argue that robots exacerbate human biases, leading these robots to be even more destructive than humans in war. Semi-autonomous weapons, which are the predecessors to LAWS, have already proven to be disastrous and prone to error – consider the case of the USS Vincennes, which mistook an Iranian commercial air flight for a Soviet military plane. As a result, commanders authorized the Vincennes to shoot at a passenger flight, killing 290 innocent flyers. The potential inaccuracy of robots, combined with their capability for mass destruction, ought to warn us of the dangers of LAWS.

The Global North’s dominance

LAWS’ capacity for mass destruction is especially alarming, as these weapons will likely aggravate the violence inflicted on the Global South by the Global North. Poor States are disproportionality impacted by weapons and war, as evidenced by the fact that, since WWII, 85% of conflicts have occurred in the “developing world”. These wars often benefit the Global North by allowing them to procure, for instance, precious minerals or narcotics, at the expense of innocent lives in the Global South. Introducing new tools that will further ease the Global North’s dominance over the Global South will likely lead to even more casualties and terror. LAWS’ potential impact on human dignity in the Global South is sufficient grounds, on its own, to preemptively prohibit LAWS.

Image: Yahya Arhab/Shutterstock

A plea for human dignity and equality

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’) states that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Human dignity, therefore, is the foundation of our human rights. If we believe that all humans possess inherent dignity, each individual holds inalienable and equal rights. LAWS may contravene the notion that humans have a right to a dignified life, where their rights are respected, in part because robots are currently unable to respect the value of life or comprehend the weight that accompanies the loss of a human life unless effectively programmed to do so. Even if robots are programmed to care in a manner similar to humans, there is significant controversy around how they might experience emotion.

At the very least, human soldiers have a consciousness that allows them to halt an operation if they feel sympathetic towards their target, or if they find the operation to be futile. Robots programmed to solely pursue and destroy their targets are unlikely to have any such form of conscious humanity. While modern day warfare also threatens human dignity, there is a unique level of inhumanity that can arise by being killed by a robot, especially when such a weapon is being used to further the objectives of one part of the world at the expense of another.

The development of LAWS further erodes dignity, as the Global North’s capitalization of the weapons will widen the inequality of people living in the Global South relative to the Global North. At the outset, the Global North will have the greatest, if not exclusive, access to these autonomous weapons. LAWS require a level of artificial intelligence sophistication, scientific knowledge, and resources, which are contained primarily in the Global North. Countries that have historically been treated as battle grounds for the Global North’s objectives will likely be decades behind in building their own LAWS.  For example, one U.S. Department of Defense-funded study predicts “in the longer term, fully robotic soldiers may be developed and deployed, particularly by wealthier countries,” implying that rich states are aware of their monopoly on these weapons. As such, it comes as no surprise that countries from the Global South are the ones more openly contesting the development of LAWS.

Rich states will not have to bear the burdens of poor communities traumatized by LAWS. Civilians living in the Pakistani town of Waziristan, for instance, report that children are now afraid of the blue sky and parents are afraid to send their children to school on sunny days, when drone strikes are more likely. The fear that can emerge from robots independently assessing which humans are “targets” creates an even more extreme dystopia than the one already existing in many communities around the world, including Waziristan.

The development of these weapons fly in the face of human rights norms, and represent a significant threat to human dignity. The international community should not delay in developing a formal prohibition against LAWS.

About the author

* Summer Ibrahim is a second-year law student at the University of British Columbia. She completed her Bachelor of Science from Trinity College, University of Toronto (Honours with high-distinction). Summer has worked as for several charities, NGOs, and think-tanks and as a researcher for law professors in Canada and England.