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Carpenter Presents on Lethal Autonomous Weapons at UN Conference

Professor Charli Carpenter of the Political Science department recently presented original research on the public perception of autonomous weapons at the United Nations Conventional Weapons Conference in Geneva earlier this month. The CWC was convened to discuss the development and deployment of these weapons--so called "killer robots"--and the ethical and pragmatic issues they raise in the international system. 

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, two of the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in the international community, contain an article known as "Martens Clause," which encourages states to account for both the "principles of humanity" and "dictates of public conscienceness" when considering the development and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons. Carpenter's research, on behalf of the NGO Article 36, was aimed at showing that the public consciousness invoked by the Martens Clause can be measured empirically and as such has a place at the policy table. 

Using data collected last year by YouGov's omnibus survey which polled 1000 Americans, Carpenter demonstrated that a majority of Americans oppose autonomous weapons by more than a 2:1 margin. Additionally, Carpenter was able to demonstrate not only that Americans oppose "killer robots," but why. After analyzing the short answers given by participants, Carpenter found that a majority of those who oppose autonomous weapons due so on humanitarian grounds; citing concern for the loss of civilian life, the right not to be killed by a machine and the principles of humanity in general. Though Carpenter cautions not to assume that public opinion in the U.S holds for the rest of the world, her research indicates that autonomous weapons overwhelmingly fail the two-pronged test of the Martens Clause to account for both the "principles of humanity" and "dictates of public consciousness."

States will meet again in November of this year, where they will discuss possible additional steps regarding the regulation of autonomous weapons. 

Professor Carpenter teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is also the author of numerous books, including Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (2007) and the just-released "Lost" Causes: Agenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (2014.) She also manages the blog Duck of Minerva, and publishes frequently in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as national security ethics, the laws of war, transational advocacy networks, political violence, war crimes and more. 

The new book can be found here on the Cornell University Press website. 

By James Fahey '15

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  • Faculty News