Constitutional Law Expert Trevor W. Morrison ’98 Addresses Legal Limits of Technological Warfare

New York, February 14, 2013—Rapid developments in technology change the way war is waged and raise new questions about how familiar doctrines of international and domestic law should be applied to current and future military operations, Columbia Law School Professor Trevor W. Morrison ’98 said recently in a keynote address that can be viewed here

Morrison, the Liviu Librescu Professor of Law, co-director of the Center for Constitutional Governance, and co-chair of the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security, said that many of the traditional legal principles governing the use of military force derive from historical practice among nations at the international level, and from the political branches of government domestically.
Yet the rise of highly automated and even autonomous weaponry, including unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” creates a very different factual context from the contexts in which military force was used in the past. In particular, remotely operated weapons make it possible to inflict lethal force with great precision and with little to no threat to U.S. personnel. That, in turn, raises questions about the extent to which familiar rules of war are premised on an assumption that the use of military force typically subjects a nation’s own force to some risk, and about how important that self-limiting mechanism is to the law of war. It also raises even more fundamental moral and legal questions about the prospect of long-term, territorially diffuse, low-level war.  
“Technological advances that dramatically reduce the risk to our own military personnel, while increasing our capacity to inflict damage very precisely, surely do undermine that self-limiting function to some extent,” Morrison said. “Is the answer total prohibition, or total overhaul of our legal rules to the point of jettisoning decades or more of historical practice?  I don’t think so. But part of the answer should be greater acknowledgement that received rules need to be adapted to new circumstances, not mechanically applied as though there is no difference.” 
Morrison, who served in the White House as associate counsel to the president in 2009, teaches and writes about constitutional law, federal courts, and national security law. To see his full keynote address at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah symposium, click here.