Vatican U.N. Diplomat Warns Against Increasing Dehumanization of Warfare

Says Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Could Irreversibly Alter Nature of Warfare

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Pope Francis’ representative to the United Nations in Geneva has expressed his concern at the increasing trend of “dehumanization of warfare” posed by the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems. 

Addressing a meeting of experts on “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems” on Tuesday, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, called for a multilateral approach to questioning the development and implementation of autonomous weapon systems.

He said it is “imperative to act” before the technology for these systems “progresses and proliferates, before such weapons fundamentally alter warfare into an even less humane, less human, affair.”

The diplomat said that if certain values are not recognized, this will lead to consequences “we cannot possibly foresee,” but that will, in any case, “increase the dehumanisation of warfare.”

He said meaningful human involvement is “absolutely essential” in decisions affecting the life and death of human beings as “autonomous weapon systems can never replace the human capacity for moral reasoning,” especially in the context of war.

The archbishop noted that development of such weapon systems will ultimately lead to widespread proliferation, saying such development could “remove the ‘human actor’ from lethal decision-making” which is both “short-sighted” and could “irreversibly alter the nature of warfare in a less humane direction.”

“The increasing trend of dehumanisation of warfare compels all nations and societies to reassess their thinking,” the apostolic nuncio stressed.

“For the Holy See, the fundamental question is the following: Can machines—well-programmed with highly sophisticated algorithms to make decisions on the battlefield in compliance with International Humanitarian Law—truly replace humans in decisions over life and death?” he posed.

He responded: “The answer is no.”

Decisions over life and death, he stated, “inherently call for the presence of human qualities,” such as compassion and insight. “While imperfect human beings may not perfectly apply such qualities in the heat of war,” he held they still are needed, as “these qualities are neither replaceable nor programmable.”

The human capacity for moral reasoning and ethical decision-making is “more than simply a collection of algorithms,” he said. “The human factor in decisions over life and death can never be replaced.”

Although he conceded that “in many fields, autonomous technology may indeed prove beneficial to humanity,” he held firm that “the application of autonomy to weapons technology is entirely distinct: it seeks to place a machine in the position of deciding over life and death.”

What “we are most troubled by,” he stated, is that these emerging technologies “may move beyond surveillance or intelligence-gathering capabilities into actually engaging human targets.”

“Good intentions could be the beginning of a slippery slope,” he said.  

“When humanity is confronted with big and decisive challenges—from health to the environment, to war and peace,” he continued, “taking time to reflect, relying on the principle of precaution, and adopting a reasonable attitude of prevention are far more ‘suitable’ than venturing into illusions and self-defeating endeavours.

“Autonomous weapon systems, like any other weapon system, must be reviewed,” he noted.

Respect for international law, human rights and humanitarian law is “not optional” and to comply with them would require the systems to possess human qualities “that they inherently lack.” He added that if such systems are “deployed and used,” there will be ethical consequences which “cannot be overlooked and underestimated.”

The archbishop warned that the technology of autonomous weapon systems “makes war too easy” and “removes its reliance on soldierly virtues,” saying “the potential for robots to completely replace soldiers on the field” causes soldiers grave concern.

He added that delegation of human decision-making responsibilities to an autonomous system which is “designed to take human lives creates an ‘accountability vacuum’ that makes it impossible to hold anyone sufficiently accountable for violations of international law.” (D.C.L.)

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