By Sahana Bhagat
Technological advances are rapidly outpacing our ability to reflect and decide whether a
particular new technology is one that serves our public good. Technologists, entrepreneurs,
policymakers, ethicists and legal scholars from Microsoft to MIT are now openly questioning
how artificial intelligence and what is called “machine learning” can be designed and/or
regulated to ensure such automated systems don’t do harm, from entrenching racial stereotypes,
or other forms of discrimination, in insurance, criminal justice, healthcare, or in many other
Nowhere is the dystopian vision of machines increasingly taking over human agency more
frightening than in the current research on lethal autonomous weapons systems, known as
“LAWS”. LAWS are weapons that utilize artificial intelligence to locate, identify, and attack
targets without human intervention. Dubbed ‘killer robots’ their critics argue these technologies
lack human morality and judgement, and point out the danger in assuming that the automation of
the exercise of lethal force is more ‘objective’ than human rationale.
While it is generally assumed that lethal autonomous weapons systems have not yet been
deployed, existing weapons systems that are deployed, particularly defensive weapons, share
some of the same characteristics. A Turkish state-owned defense company, STM, recently
unveiled a “kamikaze drone” complete with facial recognition technology. Increasing military
investment in artificial intelligence, and what are known as “loitering munitions” (weapons
systems that can “loiter” in a target area for some time before automatically identifying a target
and striking) could make LAWS a reality within the next few years.
Those who advocate for the development of LAWS cite their several advantages. As
autonomous weapons lack a ‘control-and-communication link’ between system and operator,
they are seen as more secure, i.e. less likely to be vulnerable to interception and attack. They
also point out that in addition to being more secure, autonomous weapons can act without the
delay between command from the operator and interpretation and execution by the system.
Countering critics concerns about their use, proponents argue that because these systems do not
feel fear, they are capable of making more rational decisions than human combatants. The
argument here is that systems will not react to a threat with an intense need for self-preservation,
and will therefore be less violent and show greater restraint than a soldier.
The weaponization of this new technology raises questions of how that technology should be
governed and regulated. LAWS mark a paradigm shift in warfare. They challenge long standing
views on the morality of war and blur existing conceptions of responsibility in war. As
technology moves further from direct automation and towards systems that can adapt, learn, and adjust, their actions become increasingly unpredictable. By definition, imbuing a system with
autonomous functions means humans cannot control how they will react. The real issue here,
then, is that there is an unprecedented degree of autonomy in a weapons system, and no legal,
moral, ethical, or technological infrastructure to support, regulate, or govern it.
At present, debates on these challenges are taking place under the United Nation’s Convention
on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has
called for their prohibition in March of this year. The UN’s Group of Governmental Experts, a
subsidiary body of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, began meeting in 2016 to
bring together state signatories, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and
academic institutions in discussions on LAWS. Their most recent meeting was in November of
20129. Though the GGE has been discussing LAWS since 2016, little has been achieved
beyond defining LAWS and outlining ‘best practices’ for their use. In the GGE’s August 2018
meeting, 26 states advocated for a ban on fully autonomous weapons, while 12 states including
the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, opposed a treaty on LAWS.
A report by the Human Rights Watch issued last year argues machines are unable to distinguish
between combatants and civilians, especially in armed conflicts where the lines between friend
and foe are unclear. In these situations, the report argues, the opportunity for fratricide and
civilian death is high, and the pace of such an attack would be too fast for human intervention to
prevent it once it begins. From a legal perspective, the question of responsibility poses a major
challenge. How can a machine be held accountable for civilian deaths, or fratricide? Is it the
programmer who will be persecuted, even though the machine acts autonomously?
Experts have also expressed concerns over the unreliability of fully autonomous weapons and the
high risk of uncontrolled proliferation that would inevitably accompany development of LAWS.
In 2015, a large group of AI researchers and robotic engineers released an open letter calling for
a ban on lethal autonomous weapons. As of 2018, the letter had over 20,000 signatures,
including those of Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.
Advocacy efforts are largely centered in nongovernmental organizations. Campaign to Stop
Killer Robots, formed in October 2012, is a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
that is working to ban fully autonomous weapons and thereby retain meaningful human control over the use of force. 30 countries and the European Parliament have signed on to a call to ban
For more information see PAX’s report titled “Slippery Slope: The Arms Industry and
Increasingly Autonomous Weapons” published on Nov. 11, 2019.
For how you can become engaged in advocacy against LAWS, please visit
This recently created guide on children and war as part of the Peace and Dialogue Platform compiles essential knowledge resources and information on the subject. It is aimed to be an ongoing knowledge sharing space and accumulation of information around this issue.
The United State Institute of Peace published a report by Derek Brown, our co-director, entitled "Nonformal Dialogues in National Peacemaking: Complementary Approaches." The report draws extensively on the experiences of national stakeholders in both nonformal and formal national dialogue processes who participated in two international conferences on national dialogues in April 2014 and November 2015 that were hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.
Beirut, Lebanon. The Common Space Initiative for Shared Knowledge and Consensus Building hosted a conference on August 14th on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Challenges for Return and Realities Back Home. The conference issued a summary booklet in September "Conditions of Return for the Syrian Refugees in Lebanon," highlighting the results of a study assessing seven major criteria impacting the possibility of the return of Syrian refugees to their country of origin. Among its many findings, the report concludes that although their are pockets of stability within Syria, most of the refugees within Lebanon to not come from those areas. The report presents a detailed map of Syria, the number of refugees from each region, and the status of those areas. The booklet may be found here.
Peace Education:World Press Photo Award Winning "Where the Children Sleep" Anchors New Initiative on Displacement & Belonging
Charlottesville, Virginia. A multi-month educational initiative featuring Swedish photographer Magnus Wennman's World Press Photo Award Winning photo essay of Syrian refugee children "Where the Children Sleep" held its opening celebration on December 12th. The initiative, titled (W)HERE TO STAY?! explores the stories of displacement and belonging through exhibits, film screenings, & educational programming in the Charlottesville, Virginia, the U.S. community where white supremacists rallied in 2017, resulting in mass injury and fatalities. The initiative involves a broad consortium of local and international partners, including the Peace Appeal, UNHCR, The University of Virginia's Humanitarian Collaborative and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
Washington, D.C. The Alliance for Peacebuilding's Annual Conference was held October 3-5th in Washington D.C.. Organized on the theme of "The Power of Collective Action" the conference featured keynotes and panels with Peace Appeal staff, board and adviers. Dr. Donna Hicks of Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and author of "Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict" gave a keynote talk as part of the The Future of Peace Lecture Series. PAF Board member Jayne Docherty and Co-Director, Derek Brown presented on a panel titled "Americans Cannot Dialogue Their Way Out of this Conflict, How Do We Address Structural Grievances?" While Co-Chair Jeff Seul spoke on a panel on religious peacemaking. The three day conference was held in conjunction with the United States Institute of Peace and attracts eminent members of the peacebuilding community, diplomats, scholars, business leaders, military strategists and other specialists gathered from hundreds of organizations across dozens of countries.
Nepal and the world lost a remarkable peacemaker this past November. Padma Ratna Tuladhar passed in Kathmandu, Nepal at the age of 78. A long time human rights activist and a former independent parliamentarian who never affiliated with a single party, Patma Ratna played a key role in Nepal's peace process, along with his colleague, Daman Nath Dhunghana. He served as a facilitator and mediator in talks with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists. A long-time collaborator and member of the Peace Appeal's Advisory Board, he is remembered by the Peace Appeal's co-founder, Hannes Siebert:
"A dear friend, mentor and one of the world’s most extraordinary peacemaker departed today. He taught us what it is to LIVE peace and respect both ally, friend and enemy. We traveled many journeys together. The most significant was serving the Nepal Peace Process together. His moral and political compass was a guide I can never forget. Today Nepal lost one of its most respected statesmen and peacemakers. Padma Ratna helped guide most of its leaders, never stopped in his work to negotiate peace, and listened to all — from the downtrodden, the poor, and the country's top leadership. Padma Ratna’s compassion, empathy and selfless service inspired us. Thank you for the privilege to hold your hand and to be your friend. Will miss you dearly!"
Are refugee numbers the highest ever? What were the origins of US Non-governmental support for refugees? What are the latest statistics from the Rohingya refugee crisis? How do Mexicans view the "migrant caravan" traveling to the United States border? These questions and more are featured in a new blog (W)HERE TO STAY?! featuring 30 Days of Posts in November to Educate and Inspire Action on refugees and the internally displaced. To learn more visit the blog here, or on Facebook.
August 10, 2018. Earlier today Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (“MDC”), formally contested the election results of the July 30th presidential and parliamentary elections. Official election results were announced this past Thursday, August 2, giving sitting president Emmerson Mnangagwa, the head of the ruling ZANU-PF party, a slender victory with just 50.8% of the vote.
Last month’s elections were the first since former President Robert Mugabe was ousted in November of 2017. While hotly contested, the legitimacy of the poll has been seriously questioned for months with concerns raised about the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, a system that favored incumbents, a biased media landscape and potential fraud in the conduct of the election, both in the lead-up to the actual poll and the counting and recording of ballots.
For the last 18 months, the Peace Appeal has been supporting our partner, the Zimbabwe Council for Churches (“ZCC”), as it worked across political, religious, tribal, gender and class lines to foster renewed civic engagement in Zimbabwe, and more recently to mount a robust election monitoring campaign. In the lead-up to the election, ZCC mobilized over 1,000 volunteers from across the country to participate in election monitoring. It also recruited dozens of international observers from Europe, Africa and Australia, including the Peace Appeal’s co-chair, Shirley Moulder, to join their national counterparts.
As reported by local and international observers, election day itself was relatively peaceful. However the post-election period was marred by violence as Zimbabwe’s Army sent tanks into the streets of its capital Harare and killed a number of opposition protestors who had taken to the streets in advance of the final election results being announced. When those results were announced, the electoral commission reported that Mnangagwa had received just above the threshold that would have result in a second ballot. The opposition believes the results are fraudulent, and the courts have two weeks to make a ruling on the petition submitted today.
In this tense environment, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches has called for non-violence and dialogue. In a pastoral statement issued last Friday, the ZCC called upon the ruling party to engage with the MDC Alliance through dialogue, offering the churches services as needed. The statement further asked the ruling party, ZANU-PF recognize the complaints of the opposition, and reform the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. It calls upon the MDC itself to address their concerns through the courts, and pursue nonviolent action.
In the coming months, the Peace Appeal will continue its support of the efforts of the ZCC and its local partners, as they work for national renewal.
December, 2017. A coalition of civil society groups, representing Zimbabwe’s leading religious bodies, labor and human rights organizations, women, youth and disabilities movements, Media associations, students and more have come together to advance democratic reforms at this historic moment in Zimbabwe’s history. Calling themselves the National People’s Convention, their new effort is to launch a National Envisioning Process, which seeks to rally together citizens of Zimbabwe to make the most of the opening of the democratic space in Zimbabwe.
The Peace Appeal and our partners have been working with one of the lead organizers in this effort, the Zimbabwean Council of Churches (“ZCC”) whose General Secretary attended the Third Conference on National Dialogues in Helsinki in April. Plans for advancing inclusive dialogue in anticipation of elections in 2018 were accelerated with the dramatic developments leading to the resignation of Mugabe last month.
In the last few weeks, four gatherings have been convened in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, as well as the cities Bulawayo and Mutare. As the year comes to a close, organizers are developing a long term structured initiative to galvanize public participation in developing a cohesive vision for the nation both in advance of next year’s elections and to continue over the next several years.
On the one year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally and protests in Charlottesville, Virginia held in 2017, we revisit the reflections of our board colleagues, Derek Brown and Jeff Seul. Derek offered his reflections on the events in the community that he calls home. Jeff offered his thoughts on the challenging question of whether dialogue was a sufficient mechanism for social change, following the rallies held in Boston the weekend following Charlottesville's events.
Reflections from our Hometown