Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Contextual Nature of Hors de Combat Status

Information 12 (5):216 (2021)
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Autonomous weapons systems (AWS), sometimes referred to as “killer robots”, are receiving evermore attention, both in public discourse as well as by scholars and policymakers. Much of this interest is connected with emerging ethical and legal problems linked to increasing autonomy in weapons systems, but there is a general underappreciation for the ways in which existing law might impact on these new technologies. In this paper, we argue that as AWS become more sophisticated and increasingly more capable than flesh-and-blood soldiers, it will increasingly be the case that such soldiers are “in the power” of those AWS which fight against them. This implies that such soldiers ought to be considered hors de combat, and not targeted. In arguing for this point, we draw out a broader conclusion regarding hors de combat status, namely that it must be viewed contextually, with close reference to the capabilities of combatants on both sides of any discreet engagement. Given this point, and the fact that AWS may come in many shapes and sizes, and can be made for many different missions, we argue that each particular AWS will likely need its own standard for when enemy soldiers are deemed hors de combat. We conclude by examining how these nuanced views of hors de combat status might impact on meaningful human control of AWS.

Author Profiles

Nathan Gabriel Wood
University of Ghent
Steven Umbrello
Università di Torino


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