Douglas Roche


May 18, 2015

As if we don't have enough to worry about with weapons already in existence, the "killer robot" weapons of the future demand our attention now.

The Holy See thinks so and has released an impressive document attempting to convince the international community to ban these weapons before they become part of the growing arsenals of nations.

Killer robots are known more formally as lethal autonomous weapons systems, that is, weapons that select their own targets without any human control. Such systems would challenge the relationship between human beings and the application of force.

This next stage of automation has alarmed both scientists and human rights campaigners.

This is not science fiction. It is already being worked on by the high-tech militaries of such countries as the U.S., UK, China, Russia, Israel and South Korea.

The United Nations recently held a governmental conference in Geneva to discuss the outlawing of such weapons. The distinguished NGO Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School presented a paper denouncing killer robots because they would operate outside any existing legal framework.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, an experienced diplomat who heads the Holy See's Mission to the UN in Geneva, presented a detailed ethical objection to these weapons because they would fall outside human control.

While not condoning the so-called conventional killing of individuals in warfare, Tomasi argued the capacity to kill other persons implies an immense responsibility that must rely on a human decider and not a sophisticated technological device.

Moreover, he said, we know all wars are dehumanizing. "However, a war that would be fought by the means of robotized machines not effectively controlled by humans would be even worse."

Another reason for prohibition, he said, is that delegating the power of life and death to machines deprives the political authorities of their responsibility to act in a responsible manner.

"Being out-runned by their machines and dazzled by their fascinating performance, these decision-makers risk not being able to decide anything, finding themselves in a paradox, where the decider decides not to decide anymore."

Will the Holy See's ethical intervention sway political opinion to develop an international legally binding agreement to prohibit killer robots before they start rolling off assembly lines?


Many governments are opposed to these new instruments of uncontrolled death, but as usual the big powers are fighting any restrictions on their scientific discoveries.

At the Geneva conference, the UK argued against a new prohibition on the grounds that international humanitarian law already provides sufficient regulation. Also, the UK maintained that its weapons systems would always be under human oversight and control.

That is not how Human Rights Watch sees it. The debate is now raging around what "meaningful" human control means. Can a state be prosecuted for violating international law when its killer robot automatically selects an enemy target without specific command?

Human Rights Watch says: "No accountability means no deterrence of future crimes, no retribution for victims, no social condemnation of the responsible party. The many obstacles to justice for potential victims show why we urgently need to ban fully autonomous weapons."

Killer robots will take us to a new age of warfare where the whole concept of responsibility will be thrown out the window.

The big winners, once again, will be the military-industrial complex. They aren't making enough profits on the existing $1.8 trillion annually spent on arms. The $1 trillion on nuclear weapons to be spent in the next decade is insufficient. Existing armaments, which can destroy the planet many times over, simply aren't adequate. We must have new weaponry for our security.

Of course, the proponents of killer robots don't put their arguments in such crass terms. Their powerful lobbyists are skilled at the soft sell of how we all need protection against terrorists present and future. The nuclear weapons industry has bamboozled the public for decades – and gotten away with it.

Where are we going if we lose our capacity to inject ethics and morality into decisions of war and peace? Just because science is making warfare "clean" (except for those on the receiving end), we have not been exonerated from the responsibility to stand up for life against killers of any description.

The Geneva conference did not reach any conclusions. The struggle to stop robotic killing goes on.