Autonomous weapons in armed conflict and the right to a dignified life : an African perspective
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South African journal on human rights, Vol. 33, no. 1, 2017, p. 46-71
Autonomous weapons are weapons that, once activated, can without further human intervention select and engage targets. This raises the possibility that computers will determine whether people will live or die. The possible use of autonomous weapons against humans in armed conflict clearly has potential right to life implications. This contribution argues that the right to dignity angle must also be brought into play. The first concern raised by autonomous weapons is ‘can they do it?’: Can autonomus targeting conform with the requirements of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction and proportionality? If machines cannot do proper targeting, such use of force will be ‘arbitrary’ and thus violate the right to life. Moreover, the right to life requires accountability, but it is not clear who is to be held responsible when robots get it wrong. Secondly: ‘Should they do it?’ Should robots have the power of life and death over humans? This may violate the rights to life as well as the right to dignity. The question whether there is ‘meaningful human control’ over the release of force is emerging as a helpful tool to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable autonomous targeting, and the author argues that it also makes sense from a human rights perspective. The question that will haunt the debate in the future is: What if technology develops to the point where it is clear that fully autonomous weapons surpass human targeting, and can potentially save many lives? Would human rights considerations in such a case not militate for the use of autonomous weapons, instead of against it? The author argues that the rights to life and dignity demand that even under such circumstances, full autonomy in force delivery should not be allowed. The article emphasises the importance placed on the concept of a ‘dignified life’ in the African human rights system.
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