Defend Human Rights: Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

It seems like something out of a dystopian novel- autonomous killer robots, making decisions about who is targeted and when to fire their weapons. Unfortunately, scenarios involving Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) aren’t as fantastical as we would like to believe. Many of the weapons used today are already employing artificial intelligence technology to aid in military operations, and the industry is headed rapidly towards the development of fully autonomous systems in which humans are not involved in the final decision to strike.

On this Human Rights Day, we call attention to the potential for LAWS to take away the basic human rights of “life, liberty and security of person” and the right to a hearing before an impartial tribunal in relation to criminal charges, as laid out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Church of the Brethren laid out the biblical rationale for sanctity of life in a 2010 statement, saying, “sanctity of life was and is a fundamental value of our faith. According to the biblical witness we recognize the following as foundational for our conviction regarding the sanctity of life: God created human beings in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and God proclaimed this creation “very good.” In Exodus God commands the Israelites to “not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Ex. 22:21).”  The church’s commitment to human rights is evident in it’s work against the use of drones in warfare. Even the human-operated drone strikes have resulted in unacceptable loss of human rights for targeted communities, and autonomous weapons would accelerate our departure from human rights norms in how we deal with international conflict.

The trend towards development of autonomous weapons is chilling, and a wide range of industry representatives, faith communities and human rights NGOs have called for a complete ban on the development of and use of LAWS. The Future of Life Institute coordinated a Lethal Autonomous Weapons pledge, which has been signed by industry leaders like Google DeepMind and Elon Musk.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the European Forum on Armed Drones, and many other disarmament-focused organizations are working to incorporate language against LAWS into United Nations and European Union policy. The Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare continues to advocate in Washington, D.C. for good drone policy on the United States’ end.

The Church of the Brethren affirmed it’s statement against the use of drones in warfare in 2013, and has been working with the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare since then to enact policy changes in the United States. The Church views the use of drones as a moral issue, as it does all participation in war, saying in the 2013 statement that “war or any participation in war is wrong and entirely incompatible with the spirit, example and teachings of Jesus Christ,” (1918 Statement of Special Conference of the Church of the Brethren to the Churches and the Drafted Brethren) and that all “war is sin…[and that we] cannot encourage, engage in, or willingly profit from armed conflict at home or abroad.”

To urge the company responsible for the Predator and Reaper drones (General Atomics) to sign the Future of Life Institute pledge to not develop lethal autonomous weapons systems, our office is working with the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare to host a faith rally on May 3rd in Washington, DC. At this event, we will share why drone warfare is illegal, immoral and ineffective, and our communities will call for an end to CIA drone strikes and for General Atomics to sign the Future of Life pledge on lethal autonomous weapons.

Join us for the rally on May 3rd! More details can be found here.  Can’t make it to D.C. for the rally? Organize your own demonstration in your own community, and support us on social media with the hashtag #EndDroneWarfare.

Drone strikes are being ordered on our behalf, as U.S. citizens. It is important that we take the time to speak up for justice for the victims of the drone strikes that are already happening, and preemptively protect human rights that would be taken away by the use of autonomous weapons.

Public Perception of Drone Warfare

As drone strikes become all too common, the Church of the Brethren has taken a leadership role in the faith community’s response to drone warfare. Our 2013 Annual Conference Resolution on Drone Warfare makes it clear that the use of drones is at odds with our commitment to peace.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo

“All killing mocks the God who creates and gives life. Jesus, as the Word incarnate, came to dwell among us (John 1:14) in order to reconcile humanity to God and bring about peace and healing. In contrast, our government’s expanding use of armed drones distances the decisions to use lethal force from the communities in which these deadly strikes take place. We find the efforts of the United States to distance the act of killing from the site of violence to be in direct conflict to the witness of Christ Jesus.” -2013 Resolution on Drone Warfare

One of the biggest battles to be fought in the campaign against drone warfare will happen right on U.S. soil- in the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens. In 2015, Pew Research found that only 35% of Americans disapprove of the use of drones in warfare (link). An AP-GfK poll the same year found that only 13% of Americans opposed drone usage (link).

Numbers like these are disheartening, considering the tremendous ethical concerns and transparency issues that arise in the United States drone program. Humans on the ground are labeled as “targets” based not on proven crimes, but because they fit a profile of possible combatants. Children experience fear for their lives and families when they hear the telltale buzzing of a drone overhead. Soldiers operating drones face emotional and mental trauma. The use of drones even contributes to anti-American sentiments around the world- increasing the chances of more conflict later down the road.  

If the public had a greater understanding of the true impact of drone warfare on civilians, soldiers, and even American security, we believe that the percentage of Americans opposed to drone warfare would increase dramatically. If public perception of the drone program reflected the true moral, ethical, and security concerns, it would be much easier to get the U.S.

This is why it is so important to work towards increased public awareness of the U.S. drone program. Our government will not take steps to increase transparency and limit the use of drones without the American public speaking out for justice and peace.

Fortunately, there are ways to get involved in changing the public perception of the U.S. drone program! The Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare, one of our partners through the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, has put together five 30-minute documentaries that can be used in congregations to start the conversation on drone warfare.

Two of the documentaries feature Nathan Hosler, director of the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness, who provides a Peace Church perspective.

We need individuals from congregations to host showings of these documentaries in their congregations. We will provide access to the documentaries and an easy-to-use discussion guide. These videos and discussions are a great way to engage your congregation in deep discussions about peacebuilding and the ethical problems with the drone program.  If you are interested in more information or if you decide to host a screening, please contact vbateman@brethren.org.

By helping the public understand the drone program, we can work towards a more just and peaceful world. Please join us in this effort by hosting a documentary viewing and discussion in your congregation!