Smart drones, the goal of peace, and the future of mankind

In an Op-Ed piece by Bill Keller published in the New York Times on March 16, 2013, Keller describes the high probability that “smart drones” will be introduced in the future, in which the aerial-borne robotic machine and its computer will decide which targets and individuals and groups to fire upon, without human intervention. Keller notes that Israel, in fact, has already introduced such an aircraft, the Harpy. Keller notes,

Israel is the first country to make and deploy (and sell, to China, India, South Korea and others) a weapon that can attack pre-emptively without a human in charge. The hovering drone called the Harpy is programmed to recognize and automatically divebomb any radar signal that is not in its database of “friendlies.” No reported misfires so far, but suppose an adversary installs its antiaircraft radar on the roof of a hospital?

–Bill Keller, Op-Ed, “Smart Drones,” New York Times, March 16, 2013.

The entire op-ed piece speaks of advances in warfare based on the underlying assumption that continued warfare is inevitable, and that the most we can aspire to is to limit some forms of warfare or weapons used, such as land-mines. While there is a great deal to be said for international treaties and institutions that limit types and the extent of warfare–international humanitarian law or “the law of war” has precisely that aim, it seems that humanity has fallen into a downward spiral in its thinking and aspirations relating to war, and into what is in fact a profound moral abyss.

In 1945, no one doubted that the goal of international society and the new United Nations Charter and Organization should be the prevention of war, and the maintenance of international peace and security. This goal was almost self-evident to generations which had suffered the ravages of World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945).

But today our leaders no longer espouse the goal of international peace. Like President Barack Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech or Lecture in 2009, they have no vision of peace as an overriding goal to which other objectives should be subordinated. Rather, permanent war is in the minds of the leaders of today. Obama, in thinking about his pivot to Asia, is thinking about military deployments in the region to check China’s rising military power. In the stand-off with Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council over Syria, the larger question of the goals and vision of international society has been lost, primarily but not exclusively as a result of Russian and Chinese obstinacy.

At best, particularly under Obama, we have a dearth of American leadership in world affairs in general and in the maintenance of international peace and security in particular. Here, France has stepped into the vacuum, first acting as a catalyst in Libya and more recently, acting by introducing French forces into Mali to halt the fall of that country to Islamic terrorist groups and Tuareg guerrillas.

But who, and in which countries, dares today to articulate a powerful vision of peace and how to get there?

Without a powerful vision of peace, such as that originally laid out in 1945 in the Preamble and Articles 1 and 2 of the United Nations Charter, humanity will continue to stumble down the terrible path of war, now to be mechanized with smart drones, and also soon to be characterized by an imminent breakdown in the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In five years, or at most 10, Iran will have nuclear weapons. In five years, or at most 10, North Korea will have weapons and delivery vehicles that can land a nuclear bomb in Seattle or Los Angeles, if not Washington, New York, Moscow or London.

Is it not time that we in the United States seek to purify ourselves of the flawed thinking of the Bush and the Obama administrations about the inevitability of war, about the malleability of our most sacred moral values such as the inviolability of the human person, about the central importance of respect for fundamental human rights, of every person–even enemy combatants–and begin to concentrate with all our mental, social and political powers on the question of peace, and how to achieve it?

Is not war, and the pursuit of war, evil, and are not the pursuit of international peace and the fundamental human rights of all persons in all countries goals which embody our highest moral values?

Should we, then, not act on the basis of those values, and turn all of our efforts to developing our visions of peace and our roadmaps on how to get there?

It is perhaps no exaggeration to assert that a positive future for mankind depends on our visions of peace and our efforts to achieve them, far more than it depends on the technological “advances” we might make in developing ever-better machines of war.

Now, let’s think one step further and ask whether peace can be established without international rules that are binding in nature. Is there any realistic vision of peace that does not rest, ultimately, on the development and observance of international law and institutions? That was the vision of the founders of the League of Nations in 1919, and of the founders of the United Nations in 1945.

Is it not time for a renewal of hope, of positive goals, of our own deeply-felt visions of peace, and of our own stalwart and courageous actions to secure that peace?

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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