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The Dehumanization of International Humanitarian Law: Legal, Ethical, and Political Implications of

The following blog post summarizes Professor Markus Wagner’s The Dehumanization of International Humanitarian Law: Legal, Ethical, and Political Implications of Autonomous Weapon Systems (47 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 1371 (2014)). Read the full article here.

Today’s unmanned aerial drones are only a step toward greater automation and autonomy in military technology. In the future, a growing number of combat operations will be carried out by autonomous weapon systems (AWS) that no longer rely on direct human input. Taking humans out of the loop will disrupt some fundamental assumptions of international humanitarian law, such as the principles of distinction and proportionality , as well as complicate allocation of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This Article addresses the development toward greater autonomy along three dimensions: legal, ethical , and political concerns. First, it analyzes the potential dehumanizing effect of AWS with respect to two cornerstones of international humanitarian law: the principle of distinction and the principle of proportionality. It argues that these two cornerstone principles allow for the deployment of AWS only in the rarest circumstances. Moreover, this Article explores the dehumanization of international humanitarian law through the question of criminal responsibility : who is to be held responsible should the action of an AWS lead to war crimes or crimes against humanity? AWS may dilute personal responsibility to the point that deterrent effects for those that decide to deploy an AWS are severely undermined. This Article will explore the extent to which personal responsibility can be established at various stages of the design and deployment of AWS.

Second , this Article turns to ethical questions. It explores the advantages and disadvantages of the deployment of AWS independent of legal considerations. Authors from various fields—most prominently engineers and philosophers—have weighed in on this debate, but oftentimes without linking their discourse to the legal questions outlined above. This Article fills this gap by bridging these disparate discourses and suggests that there are important ethical reasons that militate against the use of AWS, including the innate human reluctance to harm other human beings.

Third, this Article argues that the introduction of AWS alters the risk calculus of whether to engage in a conflict or not . This alteration is likely to make the decision politically more palatable to the wider public and less risky for the political decision makers , e.g. the deployment of AWS can substantially lower the risk that soldiers are exposed to when in combat. The limitation on how force can be used constitutes an important barrier – at least in democracies – in deciding whether to engage in or extend an armed conflict.

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