Autonomous Weapon Systems in Just War Theory perspective

Dissertation, (2022)
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Please contact me at [email protected] if you are interested in reading a particular chapter or being sent the entire manuscript for private use. The thesis offers a comprehensive argument in favor of a regulationist approach to autonomous weapon systems (AWS). AWS, defined as all military robots capable of selecting or engaging targets without direct human involvement, are an emerging and potentially deeply transformative military technology subject to very substantial ethical controversy. AWS have both their enthusiasts and their detractors, prominently advocating for a global preemptive ban on AWS development and use. Rejecting both positions, the author outlines a middle-of-the-road regulationist approach that is neither overly restrictive nor overly permissive. The disqualifying flaws of the rival prohibitionist approach are demonstrated in the process. After defining the core term of autonomy in weapon systems, the practical difficulties involved in applying an arms control regime to AWS are analyzed. The analysis shows that AWS are an extremely regulation-resistant technology. This feature when combined with their assumed high military utility makes a ban framework extremely costly to impose and enforce. As such it is ultimately very likely to fail at the benefit of the most unscrupulous international actors and at a very substantial risk to those abiding with international law. Consequently, to be ethically viable, a prohibitionist framework would need to offer substantial moral benefits impossible to attain through the rival regulationist approach. The remainder of the thesis undertakes to demonstrate that this is not the case. Comparing the considerations of military and strategic necessity to humanitarian concerns most commonly voiced by prohibitionists requires finding a common denominator for all values being referred to. Consequently, the thesis proceeds to show that both kinds of concerns are ultimately reducible to respect for basic human rights of all stakeholders, and so that the prohibitionist and regulationist approach may ultimately be compared in terms of consequences their adoption would generate for basic human rights realization. The author then evaluates both the potential humanitarian benefits, and the potential humanitarian hazards of AWS introduction. The benefits of leaving frontline combat to machines are outlined, with the unique kinds of suffering that would be abolished by such a development being described in detail. The arguments against AWS adoption are then divided into three classes: arguments related to alleged impossibility of compliance with The Laws of Armed Conflict, non-consequentialist and broad consequentialist arguments. This analysis, which comprises the greater part of the entire thesis, shows that the concerns behind compliance arguments are indeed substantial and have to be accommodated via a complex framework of best practices, regulations and localized restrictions on some kinds of AWS or AWS use in particular environments. They do not, however, justify a universal ban on using all the diverse forms of AWS in all environments. Non-consequentialist objections are found either reducible to other classes of arguments or thoroughly unconvincing, sometimes to the point of being actually vacuous. Broad consequentialist concerns are likewise found to be accommodable by regulation, empirically unfounded or causally disconnected from the actions of legitimate actors acquiring AWS, and therefore irrelevant to the moral permissibility of such actions. The author concludes that the proponents of prohibitionism are unable to point to moral benefits substantial enough to justify the costs and risks inherent in the approach. A global ban is, in fact, likely to have a worse humanitarian impact that well-regulated AWS adoption even if the strategic risks are disregarded. On the other hand, the analysis shows that there indeed exists an urgent need to regulate AWS through a variety of technological, procedural and legal solutions. These include, but are not limited to, a temporary moratorium on anti-personnel AWS use, development of internationally verified compliance software and eventual legal requirement of its employment, a temporary moratorium on AWS proliferation to state actors and a ban on their proliferation to non-state agents.

Author's Profile

Maciej (Maciek) ZajÄ…c
Polish Academy of Sciences


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