The Concept of “the Human” in the Critique of Autonomous Weapons


Maxwell Cohen Moot Court, Room 100
Free and open to all

(En anglais seulement) The Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University presents: The René Cassin lectureship in Human Rights 2022 

With Kevin Jon Heller, moderated by Frédéric Mégret

In-person; the event will also be livecast find link here - Masks not required; respect for others’ safety requested 

About the talk 

The Concept of “the Human” in the Critique of Autonomous Weapons 

Autonomous weapons systems (AWS) – so-called “killer robots” – are no longer the stuff of science fiction. In Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and most recently Ukraine, states have used weapons in combat that have an autonomous mode. And it is only a matter of time before AWS become ubiquitous on the battlefield, because the world’s most powerful states currently devote tens of billions of dollars to developing, manufacturing, and even exporting increasingly sophisticated versions of them. 

As AWS have proliferated, so have calls to prohibit their use. Some objections to AWS are legal, such as the idea that international humanitarian law (IHL) permits only humans to use lethal force. Others are deontological, such as the contention that allowing machines to kill is inconsistent with human dignity. And still others are consequentialist, such as the claim that using AWS will lead to unnecessary civilian casualties because only human soldiers are capable of complying with IHL. 

Despite their differences, all of these critiques emphasise the need for war to remain an exclusively human endeavour. The “human” they imagine, however, is an idealized one: the traditional Enlightenment subject who is rational, self-determining, and capable of self-control. That conception of human subjectivity is contradicted by decades of research into how humans actually make decisions, particularly in dangerous and stressful situations such as armed conflict. As this lecture will show, once we accept humans as they are, not how critics imagine them to be, the case against AWS collapses: war fought with killer robots is likely to be far more “humane” than war fought solely by human soldiers. 

About the speaker 

Kevin Jon Heller is currently Professor of International Law and Security at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Military Studies and Professor of Law at the Australian National University. His books include The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law (OUP, 2011) and four co-edited volumes: The Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law (Stanford University Press, 2010), The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (OUP, 2013), The Oxford Handbook of International Criminal Law (OUP, 2018), and Contingency in International Law: On the Possibility of Different Legal Histories (OUP, 2021). He currently serves as Special Advisor to the ICC Prosecutor on International Criminal Law Discourse, is a member of the Advisory Board of the Bar Human Rights Association of England and Wales, and has been a member of Opinio Juris, the world’s oldest international-law blog, for more than 15 years.  

About the René Cassin lectureship 

The René Cassin Lectureship is organized by the McGill Faculty of Law. In 1988, the Alliance Isréalite Universelle established this Lectureship to mark the centenary of the birth of René Cassin, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. The Alliance Isréalite Universelle is one of the oldest and most distinguished human rights organizations, having been founded in Paris in 1860. René Cassin was its president from 1943 to 1969. 

The inaugural lecture was delivered by the Hon. Claire l’Heureux-Dubé. Other speakers have included the Hon. Walter Tarnopolsky; Ambassador Yves Fortier; Minister Barbara McDougall (1992); the Hon. Jules Deschênes; Dr. Bernard Kouchner; the Hon. Louise Arbour; the Right Hon. Beverley McLachlin; Prof. Michael Bothe; Prof. Mireille Delmas-Marty (2006); Prof. Jacques Semelin (2009); Prof.Jon Elster (2011); the Hon.Irwin Cotler (2013); former president of the Quebec Human Rights Commission Jacques Frémont(2015); Prof. Philippe Sands(2018). 

All, welcome. Please join us, and please share the announcement widely.

For more information human.rights [at] 

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