For our third profile for Women in International Law Month, we were honoured to interview Professor Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics. She is a renowned Feminist scholar, particularly for her ground-breaking work on women, peace and security, in addition to her collaboration with Hilary Charlesworth and Shelley Wright on the gendered boundaries of international law.
For our second interview of Women in International Law Month, we are joined by Dr Sarah Nouwen. She is a leading expert on international law of peacemaking and justice in Africa, and Co-Deputy Director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge.
Whilst many dream of claiming their own island slice of paradise, few would have ever done so with the same verve as Alexander Francis Ure. In 1970, Ure claimed the islands of Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs — some 80 miles north of Lord Howe Island — in order to exploit the substantial hydrocarbon deposits he believed to lie beneath.
The future of warfare lies not in drones that are remotely controlled by a pilot, but in unmanned weapon systems that can independently acquire, track and engage targets.
In fact, this future has been a reality since at least the 1980s, in one respect or another. Weapon systems such as the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, the Aegis Weapon System and the Iron Dome Weapon System detect incoming threats and react to them without requiring a human to pull the trigger.
But there is a difference between these types of mechanised responses and autonomous weapon systems that are able to select and analyse a target, and decide whether or not to attack it.
The latter are the subject of this article, which proceeds in three parts to explain what autonomous weapons are, what issues they raise at international law, and what they may mean for the future of war.
What are autonomous weapon systems?
In 2013, as part of a test mission, an Air Force B-1 bomber deployed a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) over Point Mugu, off the coast of California. Although pilots initially directed the LRASM, the weapon entered its autonomous mode half way through its voyage. Without any further human intervention, it analysed three possible ships before selecting one to attack.
Weapon systems with some level of autonomy are already being used, and may be considered for deployment by Australia by the mid-2020s (Defence White Paper at 2.81). Autonomy is a matter of degree, but the LRASM evidently displays a high level of it. It is different from the defensive systems described above, which react on the basis of pre-programmed rules to intercept incoming threats. We know precisely what the Iron Dome will do to an incoming missile. Autonomous weapon systems, on the other hand, behave in a way that is not exactly predictable.
What else we know about autonomous weapon systems is mostly hypothetical. Their use for lethal force is banned by the US Department of Defense up to 2022 (US Department of Defense, Directive Number 3000.09: Autonomy in Weapons Systems at [4.c.(3)] albeit with some exceptions [4.d.]). But we do know that they will not be silver screen, silver-boned killer robots from the future. A definition offered by the US (Directive Number 3000.09, Part II: Definitions) explains that these are systems that ‘once activated can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator [emphasis added].’ There is necessarily some human interference.
What human interference does not do, however, is the legally significant act of selecting and engaging a target. Where that act is not subject to meaningful human control, including where there is an override function but the response happens so quickly that it would be impossible for a human operator to keep up, the weapon may be considered autonomous.
How to regulate autonomous weapons systems?
According to a report by the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Execution to the UN Human Rights Council, such weapons should meet international standards before even considering them for deployment (Christof Heyns, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary & Arbitrary Execution). As yet, there are no specific treaties dealing with autonomous weapon systems, but per Article 2(b) of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (API), generally recognised principles and international humanitarian law (IHL) continue to apply.
Article 36 of the API requires states to determine whether new weapons are prohibited under international law. That determination requires consideration of two further API articles: article 35(2), which prohibits weapons causing unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury, and article 51(4)(b), which prohibits inherently indiscriminate weapons (for a more in-depth look at how these provisions affect autonomous weapons, see Kenneth Anderson & Matthew C. Waxman, ‘Law and Ethics for Autonomous Weapon Systems: Why A Ban Won’t Work and How the Laws of War Can’, Stanford University, The Hoover Institution (Jean Perkins Task Force on National Security and Law Essay Series), 2013). Autonomous weapon systems tend to offer a new method of delivering existing weaponry, including bombs and bullets, so they are unlikely to be the subject of a blanket ban in this regard. However, the use of such weapons may still contravene IHL if the weapons are incapable of exercising the principles of proportionality and distinction (International Committee of the Red Cross, Autonomous Weapon Systems: Technical, Military, Legal and Humanitarian Aspects 75).
Proportionality demands the balancing of military advantage against civilian injury. Assessment of a target’s worth is typically carried out on-scene by a commander who makes a judgment call. It does not adhere to a system of precedent, or a rigid ratio, so programming a weapon to make such an assessment may be difficult, particularly as that assessment may change from minute to minute based on new intelligence.
Distinction forbids the targeting of persons who are not directly taking part in the hostilities, and although autonomous weapon systems can be fitted with advanced sensors to process biometric data, they may not be able to account for the difficult and fluid line between civilians and combatants (Peter Asaro, ‘On Banning Autonomous Weapon Systems‘; the International Committee of the Red Cross has released an entire guide to interpreting what direct participation in hostilities means, see Nils Mezler, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law). Civilians can become legal targets if they take up arms, which sensory equipment may be able to process, but also if they perform acts to assist military operations without actually carrying a weapon. Likewise, combatants may or may not become illegal targets if they are hors de combat due to injury, but that depends on the severity of the injury.
Are automated weapon systems capable of following the law? In fact, some argue that a properly programmed weapon system will follow the law perfectly (Marco Sassoli, ‘Autonomous Weapons: Potential Advantages for the Respect of International Humanitarian Law’). It will not react in anger or panic, seek revenge or withhold information concerning its own conduct. Human soldiers do not always exercise complete compliance with IHL. Can machines do so perfectly? And if they cannot, and can only comply to the same imperfect level as humans, is that good enough?
And what if programming fails? Assigning liability is a challenge. A machine cannot be convicted of war crimes. The prosecution of developers and manufacturers is unlikely – as a preliminary bar, IHL only applies once hostilities have begun. Weapons developed in the lead up to war, or during peace, fall outside of the temporal coincidence required (Tim McFarland and Tim McCormack, ‘Mind the Gap: Can Developers of Autonomous Weapons Systems be Liable for War Crimes?’ 372). Those who procured the weapon may face the same challenge. Even if they did not, should they really hold legal responsibility? It would also be difficult under modes of liability to implicate a commander – if the weapon is autonomous to a degree that it selects and engages its own target, the commander may not have the requisite knowledge of pending criminal acts (Jack M. Beard, ‘Autonomous Weapons and Human Responsibilities’ (2014) 45 Georgetown Journal of International Law 647, 658). For command responsibility to apply, the principle would have to be modified. But is that level of culpability appropriate if the weapon behaved autonomously?
Why regulate autonomous weapons systems?
The real conceptual difficulty with autonomous weapon systems is not one for lawyers, but one for ethicists. Article 1(2) of the API, the so-called Martens Clause, states that in the absence of other agreements, we must be guided by the principles of humanity and public conscience. Does that humanity-guided decision-making involve moral and intuitive paths that are not algorithmic in nature?
Consider Mark Bowden’s widely read 2013 article in The Atlantic, ‘The Killing Machines’, which recounts the experience of a 19-year old drone operator. In 2013, when a truck began shooting at a patrol of marines in Afghanistan, he fired a Hellfire missile at the vehicle and destroyed it. Those marines were at war in Afghanistan. The drone operator was at an office building in the US. Months later, he was still bothered by delivering a ‘deathblow without having been in any danger’.
Of course, for militaries around the world, this is one of the most significant benefits of autonomous weapon systems. True, machines are faster than humans in collecting, processing and acting upon information. They are also more accurate in firing at their selected targets and thus reduce civilian casualties (Avery Plaw, Matthew S. Fricker & Brian Glyn Williams, ‘Practice Makes Perfect?: The Changing Civilian Toll of CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan’), and are not subject to fatigue or emotional responses. These are military advantages. But there is also an ethical advantage. The machine assumes the risk of war (Ronald Arkin, ‘Lethal Autonomous Systems and the Plight of the Non-Combatant’, ASIB Quarterly, No. 137, 2013). For every unmanned weapon system deployed in a battlefield, at least one human soldier does not have to face that risk.
Autonomous weapon systems will never be bothered by a lack of mutual risk. The use of highly autonomous systems may remove the culpability of the human in the act of killing, an act to which humans face a psychological barrier (see, eg, David Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown & Co, Boston, 1995)). But does the decreased personal responsibility in this area make it easier to ethically disassociate from the costs of war?
Aneta Peretko is a solicitor and the Chair of the South Australian International Humanitarian Law Collective, a group of young people who share an interest in the law of armed conflict. The views expressed in this article are solely her own.
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Professor Joseph Weiler, Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Law (EJIL), and Charlesworth discuss whether feminist theory in international law has become mainstream. Charlesworth acknowledges that there have been gains in the feminist project since she co-published her seminal article, ‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’ with Christine Chinkin and Shelley Wright in 1991 (see (1991) 85 American Journal of International Law 613). In particular, the language of feminism has entered mainstream institutions. However, Charlesworth provides that, whilst the ‘vocabulary has triumphed … the political agenda behind the ideas hasn’t’.
Charlesworth says that it is problematic that the debate on feminist theory remains ‘in-house’. She suggests that the project would progress if international lawyers who were not feminist theorists were to engage with the issue in respect of their various fields of expertise.
Charlesworth and Weiler also traverse the topic of Australian and New Zealand international lawyers abroad. Weiler jokes that both countries are considered ‘international law powerhouses’ and sometimes people tell him that EJIL should be called the Australian Journal of International Law because it publishes the work of so many Australians.
Charlesworth suggests that a possible explanation is that international law is considered an escape route for Australians, ‘a bridge from our isolated existence into other worlds’. She observes, however, that it is a shame for Australian scholarship that there is such a leakage of talent to Europe and the United States.
The late Ronald Dworkin requires no introduction; few, if any, contemporary law scholars have so profoundly influenced legal thinking.
Here, I will focus on the gift Dworkin left us in the form of a new philosophical framework for international law published posthumously, A New Philosophy for International Law (published in (2013) 41 Philosophy and Public Affairs 2). More specifically, I will seek to offer some defense for Dworkin’s theory against the attack it came under in Adam Chilton’s A Reply to Dworkin’s New Theory of International Law (published in (2013) 80 University of Chicago Law Review Dialogue 105).
The essence of Dworkin’s philosophy of international law
In A New Philosophy for International Law, Dworkin sets out to (a) bring attention to the weaknesses of how legal positivism approaches international law; and (b) propose a better alternative.
Dworkin shows us that ‘consent’ cannot furnish an international rule of recognition like the standard positivist account would have us believe. For example, he notes:
But the scheme has several defects as a proposed rule of recognition that are finally fatal. First, it offers no priority among the different sources it recognizes. Must treaties yield to general practices? Or vice versa? More important, though it is founded on the idea of consent, it sometimes binds those who have not consented. It offers no explanation why states that have not accepted a rule or principle as law may nevertheless be subject to it because the bulk of other states, or of ‘civilized’ states, have accepted it. It offers no standard for deciding how many states must accept a practice as legally required before the practice becomes ‘customary’ and therefore binding on everyone. It offers no guidance as to which states are sufficiently civilized to participate in that essentially legislative power. Or which norms are peremptory. (at 6–7)
Dworkin’s own proposal is that we abandon the idea of consent as the international law rule of recognition in favor of a framework centered on what he terms the principle of salience:
If a significant number of states, encompassing a significant population, has developed an agreed code of practice, either by treaty or by other form of coordination, then other states have at least a prima facie duty to subscribe to that practice as well, with the important proviso that this duty holds only if a more general practice to that effect, expanded in that way, would improve the legitimacy of the subscribing state and the international order as a whole. (at 19)
Chilton’s claim is nothing less than that Dworkin’s theory may be ‘fatally flawed’. In support of this, he brings attention to what he claims to be three ‘flaws’, or ‘major shortcomings’, in Dworkin’s theory. I will here discuss and seek to refute each one of those claims.
Chilton’s first claim
The first of the argued flaws identified in Chilton’s reply to Dworkin is as follows:
Professor Dworkin does not provide an explanation of what, if anything, should give when domestic preferences and international obligations are in tension. Professor Dworkin reasonably argues that, for a state to be legitimate, citizens must play some ‘role in their own government.’ […] Given that Professor Dworkin argues that political legitimacy requires giving people a voice in their government, what is unclear in Professor Dworkin’s theory is whether elected officials are still required to comply with international law when it is against the preferences of their citizens to do so. (at 110–111)
In relation to this, Chilton offers Dworkin two options he views as ‘permissible’ under Dworkin’s theory:
The first answer would be that legitimate governments —which Professor Dworkin claims must give citizens a voice — are not obligated to obey international law that their citizens do not support. The obvious problem with this answer is that, if legitimate governments are only obligated to comply with international laws they support, it is difficult to see how there would be much daylight between Professor Dworkin’s theory and the theories of international legal obligation based on consent that he so forcefully argues against. The second answer would be that elected officials are still required to comply, even if their citizens do not support compliance. […] Having this obligation rest with the elected officials and not the citizens, however, requires an argument for cosmopolitanism at the expense of democracy that may do more to undermine political legitimacy — one of the principles motivating Professor Dworkin’s theory — than the principle of salience he supports. (at 112)
I suspect Chilton’s failure here may be attributed to his commitment to a binary — black or white — approach to a landscape rich in nuances. The better view is to consider the consent model of legal positivism as one end of the spectrum, with a slavish obligation to follow any and all international law, no matter what, on the other.
On my reading, Dworkin positions himself somewhere between these two extremes in speaking of a ‘prima facie duty’; thus, Dworkin need not adopt the one extreme position to avoid being associated with the other. His analysis is more nuanced, indicated by the considerations that he outlines that must be taken into account in the interpretation of international law:
The correct interpretation of an international document, like the UN Charter, is the interpretation that makes the best sense of the text, given the underlying aim of international law, which is taken to be the creation of an international order that protects political communities from external aggression, protects citizens of those communities from domestic barbarism, facilitates coordination when this is essential, and provides some measure of participation by people in their own governance across the world. (at 22)
In light of this, Dworkin could, at the most, be accused of not having fully canvassed how these underlying aims ought to be balanced when a state is assessing its prima facie duty under the principle of salience. However, he does offer us one tool for this; that ‘[t]hese goals [the underlying aims of international law outlined above] must be interpreted together: they must be understood in such a way as to make them compatible.’ (at 22)
Perhaps Dworkin’s principle of salience is easier to understand if re-worded, and fleshed out, such as the following:
1.—-If a significant number of states, encompassing a significant population, has:
– developed an agreed code of practice, either by treaty or by other form of coordination; and
– a more general practice to that effect, expanded in that way, would improve the legitimacy of the subscribing state and the international order as a whole,
2.—-then other states have at least a prima facie duty to subscribe to that practice as well.
2.—-In assessing whether such a duty exists, states should take account of the underlying aim of international law to create an international order that:
– protects political communities from external aggression;
– protects citizens of those communities from domestic barbarism;
– facilitates coordination when this is essential; and
– provides some measure of participation by people in their own governance across the world.
3.—-These goals of the underlying aim of international law must be interpreted together and must be understood in such a way as to make them compatible.
Chilton’s second claim
Chilton’s second objection is that ‘Professor Dworkin’s theory does not provide an account of why states should be bound by international law when the coordination problem that states face is not a prisoner’s dilemma.’ (at 112) In relation to this, Chilton adopts a topic originally used by Dworkin — that of global warming — and asserts that while some states may suffer from global warming, other states may gain, thus taking the situation outside the classic prisoner’s dilemma.
Having taken us this far, Chilton demonstrates that the issues that flow from this are not particularly different to the first objection he raised:
The natural question, of course, is whether compliance should still be demanded in cases where a given state stands to lose from coordination. As with the last objection I raised, the options available to Professor Dworkin’s theory similarly appear to be either to allow states not to comply when it would not be in their interest to do so, or to demand that states comply even if it were against their interests. (at 113)
In light of this, we may instantly score a point for Dworkin by noting that, in fact, this so-called second flaw is indeed nothing but the other side of the coin of the first asserted ‘flaw’. In this we have eliminated one third of Chilton’s objections, and we may legitimately recycle the answer provided to his first objection — the participation by people in their own governance is one consideration in the balancing of a set of considerations when a state assesses its prima facie duty under the principle of salience.
In addition, there is something unwholesome about Chilton’s broad claim that some states may stand to gain from global warming. At a minimum, it seems rather speculative. After all, is it not possible that the destruction of the environments of some states will negatively impact the people of other states, for example, through refugee problems?
Chilton’s third claim
Chilton’s third claim is that, given that generating new sources of international law is a repeat game
if Professor Dworkin’s theory of how sources of international law should be interpreted was taken seriously by international courts and organizations, it would run the very serious threat of causing states to be unwilling to negotiate robust agreements in the future. (at 113)
He proceeds to explain in more detail that
if states begin to be held to more demanding standards than they thought had previously been agreed upon, in future negotiations those states would have strong reasons to block even weak language in international agreements to avoid it being held against those states later on. (at 113–114)
The first, and most obvious, problem with this proposition is that it assumes that states have a clear and precise interpretation in mind of what is agreed to at the time an international agreement is formed. Given the vague and general language characteristic of many international agreements, this proposition does not survive even the slightest scrutiny. On a sober-minded assessment of the real state of things, it is clear that the vague language common in international agreements may always be a source of interpretive contention irrespective of what method of interpretation one adopts.
Where the above is accepted, we may in fact turn the second part of Chilton’s third claim in favour of Dworkin’s theory. Chilton correctly asserts that
the weight of the empirical evidence suggests that the reason international law helps to improve human rights is not because of international interpretations or enforcement, but instead because domestic political actors are able to use prior international commitments as powerful political tools when lobbying their government for change. (at 114)
To the extent that Dworkin’s theory provides for a more expansive interpretation of international law, it should make international law a more potent weapon in the hands of those domestic political actors that use prior international commitments as political tools when lobbying their government for change. The trick is, of course, to ensure that the strength of international law is such that it does not scare off states, yet is strong enough to be useful both as a tool for domestic lobbying and for international enforcement.
Chilton’s complaint is a storm in a teacup and the ‘three flaws’ he attacks lack sting. Further, given the above, I cannot agree with the conclusion reached by Laurisha Cotton (available here) at an American Society of International Law event that ‘it is unlikely that Dworkin[’s] late work will change the dynamics of philosophy in international law.’
No doubt change will not happen overnight, but I suspect (and hope) that through A New Philosophy for International Law, Dworkin has planted a seed that over time will develop and eventually blossom.
Dan Jerker B Svantesson, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Commercial Law, Faculty of Law, Bond University; Researcher, Swedish Law & Informatics Research Institute, Stockholm University; Australian Research Council Future Fellow. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.