US drone warfare breeds terrorists around the globe - Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize winner

The future has sneaked up on us unnoticed. What was science fiction a couple of decades ago is now everyday reality. But it’s not only computers and smartphones – the progress has brought us new war machines – unmanned drones striking from the skies are no surprise for anyone today. But what has the progress of warfare prepared for us in the coming years? Today we speak to a Nobel Peace Prize-winning woman, who has fought against landmines – and won. Now she is on a crusade against the new deadly threat – killer robots. Jody Williams is today’s guest on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Our guest today is Jody Williams, political activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Jody, it’s so great to have you on our show.

Jody Williams: Sophie, thank you for inviting me.

SS: So, you work to get landmines banned, and that won you a Nobel Peace Prize. Now you are targeting what you call “killer robots” – fully autonomous weapons. Tell us more about them, for those who don’t know what they are, in simple words.

JW: Sure. I think when we say “killer robots,” most people think of drones, but killer robots are weapons that would make drones look primitive. At least with the drone, there is a human being who looks at the computer screen, sees the target and pushes the buttons to fire the missiles and kill. Various militaries are doing research on weapons that would have no human being involved in the targeting and killing of human beings. We found that shocking and horrifying that people are really thinking that it is OK to give the right to target and kill human beings to machines.

SS:These things haven’t been used yet, right? Tell me more…

JW: Correct, but there are many precursors to what we call “killer robots.” The US, for example, is testing the X-47B, which is a sub-sonic “superdrone” as it is called. The UK is testing the Taranis, European countries under France are testing the Neuron, China has just tested its own stealth drone, and we’re not quite certain about what Russia is testing, but I do know that Russia announced in 2013 that they would be opening a military robot center in 2014. There are prototypes from the stealth drones all the way down to micro-robots which are the size of the mosquito, that could fly into a room and either do surveillance or fly into the room and inject a toxin and kill the target – it’s very frightening that people think this is OK.

SS:Wouldn’t it still take a human being to actually switch it on and direct it one way or another?

JW: It would take the robot to be programmed, but once it was set free, it would proceed to make the targeting and kill decisions unless our campaign to stop the killer robots is able to make certain that human beings have to be involved meaningfully in the kill decision.

SS:Just before we get into the whole moral side of the story, I want to know a little bit more about the technicalities. So, are these things uncontrollable once they are put in action, or can you actually stop them, reverse the action, and bring them back?

JW: That we don’t know yet, because, as you point out, these are still in the prototype and testing phase. Robot scientists, some of whom are part of our campaign, talk often about what would happen if a squadron, for example, of stealth killer drones were set free and then were hacked – just like computer hackers hack into computer systems, there is no saying that they couldn’t hack into killer drones squadron and set it amok. Who then is responsible for the killings by the killer robots? Is it the programmer? Is it the commander somehow in charge of the squadron? Is it the person who programmed the robot? Is it the producer of the robot? In international law there has to be a direct chain of command and accountability. That is another part of this that makes it ethically unsound and morally reprehensible, quite frankly.

SS:Now, landmines were banned after many people suffered. Will you be taken seriously, considering that there haven’t been any victims yet?

JW: We have been taken seriously, which is one of the amazing things about this, Sophie. We only launched the campaign to stop killer robots in April of this year, this year being 2013. And within 7 months, which is now, the international community is going to be taking up the question, here in Geneva, next May I think it is, in a 4-day long meeting on killer robots, and it will be the governments of the world under the umbrella of convention on Conventional Weapons, here in Geneva, who will be addressing this issue. And we’re hoping they will go further and we will continue a dialogue to lead to a new international instrument that would prohibit fully autonomous killer robots. So, it’s not something that we’re being ridiculed for anymore, although you’re correct – when we first used the term “killer robots” some people said used we were using scare tactics – that’s not true. Yes, we want to capture public attention, which means you use language that makes people stop and think, but immediately the military started responding to us, showing clearly that we are not making things up, this is not science fiction. I wish it were, to be quite honest with you.

SS:Jody, I’m just wondering – have you personally had a chance to talk directly to people who are making these autonomous weapons? Do they actually consider the dangers of what they are building?

JW: Well, I haven’t spoken to them yet myself, but I intend to. They are aware, there is an increasingly robust dialogue about this, especially among lawyers, as you can imagine, on both sides of the argument. The anti-killer robot side is saying that international law as it stands now cannot fully deal with this new technology, and others believe that fully autonomous weapons are the best thing after sliced white bread – they argue that it’s a good thing and international law can deal with them, and all we need is best practices. When the US, which is the only country to have done so far, produced its military directive on killer robot research, they actually listed a very long series of concerns that need to be looked at in terms of the killer robots. So even the US military, which has long considered that killer robots are inevitable and will be part of the US military force, recognizes this is very problematic. We intend to amplify that, if you will.

SS: What do you say to those who argue that autonomous systems are in our future, it’s an irreversible process, and if governments don’t use them in a regulated way, they will end up being used by rebel groups and non-government actors?

JW: No, because rebel groups and non-government actors could never produce them on their own, unless hi-tech militaries, like the US, Israel, South Korea, Russia, China – unless those militaries and the so-called defense industries produce them – rebel groups don’t have the capacity. What we are trying to do is a pre-emptive ban as was done with blinding laser weapons, for example, back in 1995 or 1996; they were pre-emptively banned, we need to this with killer robots, and we are not against robots, we are against weaponized fully autonomous robots that have the kill decision over human beings. It’s quite shocking that people think that’s OK.

SS:Ok, I got you, ban it pre-emptively – I think it’s a great goal, but does your campaign include semi-autonomous machines, like drones?

JW: No. There are members of our campaign that work on drones, but the legal rationale for drones and for killer robots is different. We wanted to be very clear that we were pre-emptively dealing with the future system, which is under research and development. Let’s not imagine that they are somewhere in the far distant future. They are on our immediate horizon unless we stop them. Dealing with drones is, as I said, a very different legal approach, and to try to blend the two would make it a very difficult campaign, to be quite honest. We don’t believe killer robots are inevitable, nothing is inevitable except death, and we intend to stop them.

SS: If you take drones apart from the killer robots, I just want to know your personal take on them – can the use of drones to carry out attacks be morally justified, is it OK?

JW: I am personally, morally and ethically offended by the use of drones. In fact, I was doing research for an article, I was writing on the CIA, the US military, the mercenary forces they employ and the use of drones and its illegality under many circumstances, because I found them morally reprehensible. I think that the fact that these weapons can fly semi-autonomously for 7,000 miles to locations where, unfortunately, my military and the CIA are attacking people in countries with which we are not at war – to me it’s simply horrifying and as many already argue, it’s a violation of international law, its assassination. I do not support assassination by my government, period.

SS:Many would argue that sophisticated weapons, like drones, despite all their disadvantages are still better than humans that are locating targets, plus the life of the pilot is safe…

JW: You know, others argue that such weapons that remove a human being from actual military action make it easier for the country to go to war. I believe firmly that too many countries already find it easy to go to war. We do not need weapons systems that make it easier for one country to kill people in another without having to suffer the consequences of their military actions. There has been a young former drone pilot who had spoken publicly about what happened to him as a drone pilot. He was saying that people think that it isn’t traumatic, and he said that it is, so closely watching people run, because you can hear the coming of the drone, it traumatizes entire villages and populations, and watching people run to try to escape them, and then be blown to smithereens, as we say in English. He said it’s quite horrifying. However, if he were on the ground, maybe he wouldn’t make the same decision… I worry mostly about my country because we’re the country that uses drones primarily. We attack targets in Yemen, Somalia, we’ve attacked in Libya, Sudan. I heard that there might have been an attack in Indonesia… We’re not at war with those countries – what right do we have to assassinate people? If we had to send our military in, it would be a completely different story. Another ethical issue about drones is that they give no quarter, which is an important aspect of military engagement. Giving no quarter means that the enemy has no possibility of surrender – when they target a person and decide to blast him with the Hellfire missiles, they have no way to surrender. They are just blown up. That is morally and ethically bankrupt. Many of us argue, including US active duty military, that it is causing a huge backlash against the US and is inspiring more so-called terrorists to take up a battle against the US.

SS: Your life has been this selfless mission all along, and you won a Nobel Peace Prize and you sure as hell deserved it, and many more if you ask me – but do you generally believe that those people who get Nobel Peace Prizes usually – always deserve it?

JW: Not always, certainly not. I have big issues with people in politics, or political positions, where they can engage in war, receiving a Peace Prize. I think that’s a little bit crazy…

SS:So you don’t think Obama deserved a Nobel Peace Prize?

JW: I’ve said it publicly many times, so I won’t shy from saying it now – first off, I think it is the fault of the Nobel Committee at that time for selecting him. Mr. Nobel’s will is very clear about the terms that should be followed in selecting recipient of the Peace Prize, and expressions of future possibilities as Mr. Obama was talking about in terms of nuclear disarmament, expressions of the future are not terms of the will. So, I think the Nobel Committee itself made an egregious error. When Mr. Obama came out of the White House and said that he knew he did not deserve the Peace Prize – I was proud of him for that moment, and I wish he had continued to say, “Therefore I cannot accept it”. And I don’t think Henry Kissinger ever deserved it.

SS:But who do you believe deserves a Peace Prize that hasn’t received it?

JW: Oh my God, I could list many. I happen to think that the people who wage war don’t deserve the Peace Prize. I happen to believe that the people on the ground, fighting – and I don’t mean militarily fighting – struggling to keep communities alive, struggling to promote peaceful solutions in the context of war – they are the ones who deserve the Peace Prize. I will be quite honest; I have nominated an Attorney-General of Guatemala two times now for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her name is Claudia Paz y Paz, she is from Guatemala. Under her, the former dictator of Guatemala was tried and convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, when he was a president and was killing Mayan Indians in the so-called civil war in the 1980s in Guatemala. I think she deserves the Peace Prize. She is challenging immunity and impunity which are two of the things that cause dictators and heads of state to believe that they could do whatever they want because nothing will happen to them. If we can really attack impunity through the International Criminal Court, for example, through domestic courts, like Paz y Paz has done in Guatemala, we will make a huge leap forward in dealing with war criminals and perhaps convincing future possible war criminals that they should not commit war crimes. I think she is very deserving.

SS:You seem super-confident in every step you make, it’s like there’s no stopping you, and thank God for that. You have physically been assaulted and attacked because of your activism, and you’re still not scared. How do you put the fear aside? What keeps you going every morning that you get up?

JW: I was thinking about this the other day. I was at the meeting of the women parliamentarians and talking about women’s leadership, whether it’s in parliaments or in companies or in activism, and I was thinking about the six women who are part of Nobel’s Women Initiative and every one of us is fearless and fierce in our belief that we can make the world a better place. We are fearless and fierce in righteous indignation at injustice. That what makes me move, when I feel fire in my heart about the situation, I can’t not do something. So that’s what led me to start pushing groups to create a campaign to stop killer robots. When I learned about them I was so freaked out, I was terrified, totally, honestly, I was terrified. And then I knew I had to do something to try to address this issue publicly. We deserve to have a global conversation about how wars are conducted in our names. I feel fierce about making sure this doesn’t happen; it is not inevitable.

SS:We have time for just one last question. You say that “worry without real action is a waste of time,” but what if you feel helpless? I mean, how can an ordinary person stop governments from doing whatever they are doing?

JW: My dear, I am an extremely ordinary person. I come from a village of 1,200 people in a tiny state of Vermont. Neither my mother, nor my father finished high school, and yet they encouraged me to be what I wanted to be in the world, and I went out and the first thing I did was volunteer in the organization working on El Salvador. There’s nothing magic about it. I recently wrote a memoir of grassroots activism in which I talk about that, I talk about my very meager and poor family life. We were rich with love in support, but we didn’t have money. I write about the fact that I was a confused college kid, like so many. I write about the fact that I made mistakes in life, and yet I never veered from my belief that we all have the capacity to contribute to a better world. You don’t have to be a full-time activist, like I am. I somehow had the privilege of finding this path in my own life, but I try to imagine, if everybody in the world who really wanted the better world for us all, even people they don’t like, if everybody just volunteered a few hours a month, on whatever issue they feel passion about – it doesn’t have to be mine, it doesn’t have to be killer robots, it doesn’t have to be weapons, it doesn’t have to be… I work on climate change as well - but anything that makes for a better community, if you volunteered, then you are empowering yourself. We each have power, and we either choose to use it or not. I chose to use, and I will continue to use until I die, because I believe we all have responsibility as well as rights, and I am exercising mine forever.

SS: Jody, thank you so much for this wonderful interview, I think you’re incredible and you inspire even the most impassionate of us. So, keep on going, we’re all with you. Thanks for being with us, Jody Williams, a political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. That’s all we have for today, folks, I will see you in the next edition of Sophie&Co.