Killer Robots? They’re a Real Issue — and Here’s What the Vatican Has to Say

Nations are seeking to develop war machines that have the ability to choose and engage targets without human involvement, drawing alarm from the Vatican and Catholic activists.

An imaginative rendering of a fully automated war machine on the battlefield.
An imaginative rendering of a fully automated war machine on the battlefield. (photo: Laslo Ludrovan via

GENEVA — No longer relegated to mere science fiction, robots — built to kill people — play an increasing role in fighting terrorism alongside other new weapons of war.

But what’s resulting in a mounting headache for the United Nations, in terms of checks and sanctions, is actually something that the Church can and should speak to, say Catholic leaders, including the Vatican.

With the nickname “killer robots,” fully autonomous weapons are designed with the ability to choose and engage targets without human involvement. Drones, a prototype for this kind of artillery, are already in use by multiple countries across the globe, including the United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom.

At the U.N.’s Geneva “Convention on Inhumane Weapons” in early November, Tony D’Costa, general secretary of the Irish section of the International Catholic Peace Movement Pax Christi, spoke out that the presence of the Church was necessary at the gathering.

“Why is it important to take part in it from a Catholic perspective? It goes without saying that we have to be present here, in order to change the world for the better and to translate the hope and the values of the Gospel into reality,” D’Costa said.

In its contribution to the dialogue in Geneva, representatives from the Holy See highlighted the questionable aspects of a specific document called the “Agreement on Explosive Remnants of War,” also known as “Protocol 5.”

“Given an ethical responsibility and the effort to provide for a peaceful and stable future world order, all participants share the responsibility to protect every single person on grounds of his or her own dignity,” said Msgr. Richard Gyhra, chief secretary of the Holy See’s U.N. embassy.

“This applies irrespective of the wording of the agreement — be it weak or strong,” he added.

The aim of November’s U.N. meeting was to prohibit or restrict the use of weapons by which soldiers suffer unnecessarily or unjustifiably and which may harm civilians in a random manner.

For his part, Tony D’Costa stressed that “humane killing” was a contradiction in itself.

“Killing is never humane. The Gospel teaches us that as well. Instead of killing, we should love and promote each other,” he said.

“However, during the course of time, war has developed into a means to resolve conflicts in the world and to dominate people, which is completely wrong, according to our Christian perspective,” D’Costa said.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See at the U.N. in Geneva, warned during his testimony that respect for and compliance with international humanitarian law are increasingly ignored.

“The principles of the law have at best become a mesmerizing litany,” he said. “Great principles are not able to ensure justice and peace. When they prove to be ineffective, we simply criticize their application.”

“However, a practical implementation of international humanitarian law is the essential minimum needed against the inhumanity of armed conflicts,” the archbishop said.


No Humans Required

The most urgent issue up for discussion at the event was the proposed preventive ban on fully autonomous weapons, which were described as especially dangerous due to their ability to select targets and attack them without any human intervention.

“We would never want to leave those two issues to a machine,” added Mary Wareham of the international advocacy group Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“They should always remain under reasonable and appropriate or effective human control,” Warehem said during her talk. “So what we expect from this debate is to get closer to a solution in this matter.”

According to Steve Goose of the organization Human Rights Watch, the robots in question “are more than just weapons. They constitute a new kind of warfare, too. Excluding the human element completely from the decision-making process is something that has happened never before.”

After November’s gathering in Geneva, the U.N. has agreed to a further, one-week diplomatic meeting in April 2016.

Speaking to Pax Press Agency, Tony D’Costa warned that killer robots run the risk of pushing humanity ever further from the bounds of an ethical and just society.

“They will throw us far away from it,” he said. “That’s very dangerous, since the principle of humanity, of our fundamental moral norms, is what holds us together, despite all human limitations.”

Reprinted courtesy of Christian Peschken, Pax Press Agency

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