Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Killing the ‘Robots-don’t-Rape’ Argument

Earlier this spring, we debated a law professor who insisted that lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) could clean up war. The professor posited that a war fought with autonomous weapons would be a war without rape. Taking humans out of the loop would, the argument goes, lead to more humane war. We find this narrative, where technological innovation is equated with human progress based on the assumption that it will end the occurrence of rape in war, highly problematic. We have since reflected on what this ‘progress narrative’ is about and how we as a scholars should approach this type of narrative, particularly as it is gaining traction as part of the wider set of arguments regularly employed by actors promoting the use of lethal autonomous weapons (see report by Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions).

A graffiti artist’s impression of a military drone. Photo: CC/Thierry Ehrmann.

Thus, in thinking critically about the nature of the progress narrative of which the ‘Robots don’t rape’ argument is part, we make three observations:

First, the politics of rape denunciation are now also becoming the politics of lobbyists, vendors and military manufacturers seeking access to new customers and markets. The recognition of wartime rape as a fundamental violation of international law has been a hard fought victory. Moving rape from the realm of silence, shame and mutedness and into the public domain has taken enormous effort. The denunciation of sexual violence as one of the worst features of armed conflict is thus welcome. However, this should not blur our view from recognizing how the struggle against rape has attained moral currency, a moral currency that may be useful when someone is trying to legitimate a particular set of past actions or political choices, or when someone is trying to prepare the ground for a future project.

Second, this instrumentalization of the ‘Very Worst Sex Crimes’ is nothing new: the scourge of online child pornography has for a long time been used to legitimate widespread government censorship and surveillance in cyberspace. What Paul Amar (2013) calls ‘gendered cultural rescue‘ is by now an established form of securitization of gender and sexuality, legitimating intervention for the ‘protection’ of (female) civilians. It should therefore be noted that there is not only commercial interest; there is government interest too.

Third, this type of argument belongs to a broader category of technological utopianism, signifying the belief that emergent military technologies create better wars not only because they are pre-programmed and remotely controlled, but because the technology in question is assumed to always function as intended: The surgical precision argument in drone warfare and its attendant claims for ‘humane warfare’ because drones (allegedly) limit collateral damage, should be familiar by now. Similarly, commentators argue that Cyberwarfare is preferable to conventional war because it is presumed to make war less bloody. Following the same type of transformative logic, autonomous robots are portrayed as the vehicles for perfect legality and perfect soldiering, which in combination will produce ‘perfect combat’. This third argument brings the normative crowd of law and ethics professors into the project.

In sum, the deployment of the robots-don’t-rape argument can be understood as an attempt to build a moral economy; an environment in which social expectations, cultural transactions, and emotional investments collectively create a shared understanding between the participants in an economic exchange. Leveraging the argument that robots don’t rape—and doing so through market-based, governance and ethical discourses—can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to create this type of moral economy out of which robot soldiers are supposed to emerge.

If this is the case, and the progress narrative is indeed one of strategy as indicated here, how may we respond?

In an excellent posting at Duck of Minerva last year, Charlie Carpenter lamented the fact that a recurrent argument at the first Convention of Conventional Weapons (CCW) experts meeting in Geneva in May 2014 was the idea that, unlike human soldiers, autonomous weapons would never commit rape. She noted that this argument was a subset of the more general argument that killer robots would be good for human security, since they are assumed better at keeping to the norms of the laws of war (as argued by Ronald Arkin and others). Carpenter also observed that the 1998 definition of rape in international law, as codified in the Rome Statute for the International Criminal court is a broad one, according to which rape is not reducible to forcible penetration of women committed by men. Rather, rape occurs when the perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.

Carpenter suggests that this conceptualization of rape is accompanied by an implicit understanding of motivation and rationale: that rapes in war are spontaneous and unplanned and thus a breach of discipline. Contrary to widespread assumptions, sexual violence is not the male soldier’s appropriation of his ‘war dividend’; rather, as the research on sexual violence as a weapon of war has showed us, sexual violence is often strategically used against civilians. If LAWS are programmed to kill, they may also be programmed to do other forms of violence, including rape.

Carpenter’s eloquent rejection of the rape argument on account of factual inaccuracy (wrong definition of rape; killer robots could technically be programmed to carry out rape) along with misleading assumptions about the uses of rape in conflict is one that we should prepare ourselves to repeat. As often as necessary. Not least as the cost of accepting the ‘Robots don’t rape’ argument risk undermining hard-fought gender battles, reducing wartime rape to an issue of uncontrolled/uncontrollable male sexuality and penis penetration of predominantly female victims instead of recognizing it primarily as an act of violence, and one which may or may not be deliberate, intentional, and programmed.

Share this: