Human Dignity in an Age of Autonomous Weapons: Are We in Danger of Losing an 'Elementary Consideration of Humanity'?

Ozlem Ulgen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Military investment in robotics technology is leading to development and use of robot weapons, which are machines with varying degrees of autonomy in target, attack, and infliction of lethal harm (i.e. injury, suffering or death). Examples of robot weapons include automated weapons systems, unmanned armed aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely-controlled robotic soldiers, bio-augmentation, and 3D printed weapons. Robot weapons generally fall into one of two categories: semi-autonomous, involving levels of automation and remotely controlled human input (e.g. UAV or ?drones?); and autonomous, involving higher levels of independent thinking as regards acquiring, tracking, selecting and attacking targets, without the need for human input (e.g. US Navy X-47B UAV with autonomous take-off, landing, and aerial refuelling capability). The trend is clearly towards developing autonomous weapons. Development of new weapons aimed at reducing costs and casualties is not a new phenomenon in warfare. Technological advances have created greater distance between the soldier and the battlefield. A bullet fired from a rifle handled by a human has been superseded by a missile fired from a remotely controlled or autonomous machine. So what makes robot weapons different? What particular challenge do they pose international law? Although autonomous weapons may be employed to attack non-human targets, such as state infrastructure, here I am primarily concerned with their use for lethal attacks against humans. In this paper I focus on autonomous weapons and their impact on human dignity under two of Kant?s conceptual strands: 1) human dignity as a status entailing rights and duties; and 2) human dignity as respectful treatment. Under the first strand I explore how use of autonomous weapons denies the right of equality of persons and diminishes the duty not to harm others. In the second strand I consider how replacing human combatants with autonomous weapons debases human life and does not provide respectful treatment. Reference is made to contemporary development of Kant?s conceptual strands in ICJ and other international jurisprudence recognising human dignity as part of ?elementary considerations of humanity? in war and peace.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)167-196
    Number of pages30
    JournalBaltic Yearbook of International Law Online
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 20 Dec 2020


    • Human Dignity; Autonomous Weapons; Humanity; military; robotics; technology; Kant


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