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Drones are of course only one side of the problem. As far as remoteness is concerned, the current development of autonomous weapons presents new threats. On the one hand, they may bring a new potential to improve compliance with humanitarian law on the battlefield.

For now, however, it seems extremely difficult from a technical standpoint to give these weapons the capacity to make distinctions between civilians and legitimate military objectives. As Peter Singer notes in the International Review of the Red Cross issue on New Technologies and Warfare: “A computer looks at an 80-year-old woman in a wheelchair the exact same way it looks at a T-80 tank. They are both just zeros and ones.” There are already some weapon systems in use that have autonomy in their “critical functions”, meaning in identifying and attacking targets. For now, these weapons are largely fixed in place and operate autonomously for short periods of time, in narrow circumstances and against limited types of targets. In the future, such weapon systems could operate without such constraints.

A robot experiences neither fatigue nor stress, neither prejudice nor hatred, which are among the causes of crime in time of conflict.

Today there are already weapons systems that have autonomy in their ability to select and attack targets, but they are normally confined to very limited roles. Kathleen Lawand Kathleen Lawand, Head of the Arms Unit at the ICRC Kathleen Lawand is head of the Arms Unit, in the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). She joined the ICRC in 2000, and was posted to India, West Africa, Iraq support, and Afghanistan. From 2008 to 2012, she was head of the ICRC’s Legal Advisers to Operations. , Head of ICRC’s Arms Unit, reiterates the important legal and moral issues involved as autonomous technology advances. She points out that the development of autonomous weapons has profound implications for the future of warfare and, indeed, for humanity.


Kathleen Lawand, head of the ICRC’s Arms unit, introduces the debate on what limits, if any, should apply to autonomous weapon systems given the potential loss of human control over the use of force on the battlefield.

While widespread use of autonomous weapons is not yet a reality, some commentators are already calling for a total ban on such weapons. For its part, the ICRC emphasizes that the deployment of such systems raises a range of fundamental legal, ethical and societal issues which need to be considered before such systems are developed or deployed. This is why a meeting of experts was organized on this specific topic in March 2014, gathering State representatives, the ICRC and independent experts, including roboticists, jurists, ethicists, representatives from the United Nations and non-governmental organisations.


A conversation on autonomous weaponry and armed conflict hosted by the American Society of International Law (ASIL), featuring Naz Modirzadeh, John Canning and Richard Jackson. Moderated by Markus Wagner.