It’s the stuff of science fiction: machines that make decisions about who and when to kill. Referred to as “autonomous weapons”, they’re already in use to some degree. But as more sophisticated systems are being developed we wanted to an expert in the field about whether such systems comply with international humanitarian law and what it means for humanity to give machines the power over human life and death.
With the war in Syria in its sixth year, and upwards of 2.7 million refugees of that war now living in Turkey, the choice of Istanbul as host for the World Humanitarian Summit was particularly poignant. One didn’t need to look far to confront the very challenges the global meeting was seeking to address.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Istanbul,” noted Naci Yorulmaz, vice president of the Turkish Red Crescent Society, who was cautiously optimistic that the global meeting in May 2016, organized by the United Nations, could be an important step towards solving an overwhelming set of pressing humanitarian problems and helping humanitarian organizations generate more pressure on states for action.
“After this meeting, I hope we will have a stronger voice,” he said. Giving a voice to local and nationally based humanitarian organizations — and the people they seek to help — was a recurrent theme at the Summit, which brought 9,000 delegates from 173 countries together around the Herculean task of reshaping the way aid is delivered and pressing states to make concrete commitments to end conflicts or, in the meantime, protect civilians caught in the crossfire.
Extensive consultations with local relief organizations and communities affected by crises helped shape the Summit’s call for greater local involvement in humanitarian decision-making. For Yorulmaz, the true test of how well the Summit attains that goal is whether the people affected by conflict and other emergencies see any meaningful change in their situations.
“We should go out and say to them: ‘We had another meeting in an expensive hotel, talking about your problems. But what needs to change for you on a daily basis?’”
One person in a good position to answer this question is Al Hakam Shaar. Born and raised in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Shaar is a researcher at The Aleppo Project, a platform for Syrians and non-Syrians to discuss the future of this war-torn city. Shaar says many of his fellow Syrians feel the ideas proposed at the Summit are indeed relevant.
But he said it’s hard for many of them to see how the agreements made in Istanbul will affect the dire situation people face every day. “Many of the criticisms of the summit were that, although it called for fighting the root causes of human suffering — rather than always remedying the situation — there were no suggested mechanisms to achieve this,” he said.