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Human Dignity in an Age of Autonomous Weapons: Are We in Danger of Losing an 'Elementary Consideration of Humanity'?

Ulgen, Ozlem



Military investment in robotics technology is leading to development and use of autonomous weapons, which are machines with varying degrees of autonomy in target, attack, and infliction of lethal harm (that is, injury, suffering or death). Examples of autonomous weapons include weapons systems involving levels of automation and remotely controlled human input, unmanned armed aerial vehicles (uav), remotelycontrolled robotic soldiers, bio-augmentation, and 3D printed weapons. Autonomous weapons generally fall into one of two categories: semi-autonomous, involving some degree of autonomy in certain critical functions such as acquiring, tracking, selecting, and attacking targets, along with a degree of human input or remote control (for example, uav or ‘drones’); and autonomous, involving higher levels of independent thinking as regards critical functions without the need for human input or control (for example, US Navy X-47B uav with autonomous take-off, landing, and aerial refuelling capability). The trend is clearly towards developing autonomous weapons. Development of new weapons aimed at reducing costs and casualties is not a new phenomenon in warfare. Technological advances have created greater distance between the soldier and the battlefield. A bullet fired from a rifle handled by a human has been superseded by a missile fired from a remotely controlled or autonomous machine. So what makes autonomous weapons different? What particular challenge do they pose international law? Although autonomous weapons may be employed to attack nonhuman targets, such as state infrastructure, here I am primarily concerned with their use for lethal attacks against humans.

In this chapter I focus on autonomous weapons (both semi-autonomous and fully autonomous) and their impact on human dignity under two of Kant’s conceptual strands: (1) human dignity as a status entailing rights and duties; and (2) human dignity as respectful treatment. Under the first strand I explore how use of autonomous weapons denies the right of equality of persons and diminishes the duty not to harm others. In the second strand I consider how replacing human combatants with autonomous weapons debases human life and does not provide respectful treatment. Reference is made to contemporary development of Kant’s conceptual strands in icj and other international jurisprudence recognising human dignity as part of ‘elementary considerations of humanity’ in war and peace.


Ulgen, O. (2020). Human Dignity in an Age of Autonomous Weapons: Are We in Danger of Losing an 'Elementary Consideration of Humanity'?. Baltic Yearbook of International Law Online, 17(1), 167-196.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 5, 2018
Online Publication Date Dec 20, 2020
Publication Date 2020-12
Deposit Date Nov 8, 2022
Journal Baltic Yearbook of International Law Online
Print ISSN 1569-6456
Electronic ISSN 2211-5897
Publisher Brill Academic Publishers
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 17
Issue 1
Pages 167-196
ISBN 978-90-04-41392-4
Public URL
Publisher URL