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Colloquium - 'The Ethics of Remote Warfare'

Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 9:30am

A fourth joint colloquium on Issues in International Affairs was held between the McDonald Centre and Chatham House on 1 February 2013.  The impetus for the discussions lay in the growing interest in the potential of cyber capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and ‘autonomous’ weapons to revolutionise the way war is waged.  

As parts of a military arsenal these capabilities can be deployed to deter, to make pre-emptive strikes, and to reduce the need for large armed forces. However, these remarkable developments in military technology raise novel and difficult ethical questions, for which traditional just war thinking lacks ready answers:

  • When does cyber-aggression constitute ‘war’? What kinds of retaliation are proportionate?
  • Does the mere presence of a terrorist change a peaceful territory into a war-zone and justify the aggressive use of UAVs across the borders of a sovereign state?
  • When may we use UAVs to carry out assassinations?
  • Is remote warfare ‘unchivalrous’?
  • Are military personnel safely removed from the battlefield more likely to take disproportionate risks?
  • What does it do to the moral characters of military personnel to conduct warfare in a manner virtually indistinguishable from playing a video-game?
  • How ‘autonomous’ are programmed weapons? Can they discriminate?
  • Who is responsible for their operation?

Under the Chatham House Rule, the identities of those present may not be revealed, but participants included scholars of international relations, politics, philosophy, and theology, as well as leaders in the intelligence community.