The United Kingdom and lethal autonomous weapons systems
The United Kingdom (UK) has asserted that its weapons systems will always be under human control, indicating some commitment to this basic principle. Building on this, the UK has subsequently said that it will not develop lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).
However, UK policy has not yet provided an explanation of what would constitute human control over weapons systems whilst at the same time suggesting a narrow and futuristic concept of LAWS that appears permissive towards the development of weapons systems that might have the capacity to operate without the necessary levels of human control. By adopting a higher-level and futuristic concept of LAWS, the UK is failing to address contemporary developments in autonomous weapons systems which pose an immediate and serious threat.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems are investing in the development of its own autonomous system, the Taranis, which has been testing autonomous capabilities including target location and engagement and raises concerns over the UK’s assurances that it does not and will not develop LAWS.
The UK is also arguing that new international law is not necessary in order to prevent the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems. No substantive rationale has been offered for this assertion, although politically it is consistent with previous UK positions at the early stages of other international weapons regulation processes, including on incendiary weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.
Whilst the subject of LAWS is the focus of international discussion at the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a forum in Geneva designed to restrict and ban particular weapons, the UK appears to be the only state to have explicitly ruled out the development of new international law. Instead, the UK has sought to argue that legal reviews of weapons under article 36 of the 1977 additional protocol I of the Geneva Conventions will be a sufficient response for the international community. Leaving decisions on LAWS – technologies that will change the nature of warfare globally – in the hands of the states that wish to acquire them, however, raises serious concerns.
LAWS pose a series of ethical, human rights and humanitarian law challenges. With around a dozen states researching and developing autonomous weapons systems, there is an urgent need to tackle these systems before they are put into operation. In this context, current UK policy lacks the level of coherence that would be required for it to be assessed as adequate and appropriate in the UK national context, or as a contribution to the international discussions on this urgent and fundamental question for humanity.
This paper provides an analysis of UK statements on the topic of lethal autonomous weapons systems as well as a set of recommendations to the UK government. Article 36 recommends that the UK government:
- Sets out the UK’s policy for ensuring weapons systems will always remain under human control, with reference to how this works for existing weapons systems and the assessments for how it will work for emerging systems.
- Sets out the UK’s assessment of the implications of autonomous weapons for the concepts of ‘human control’ and ‘individual attack’ and support the policy position that there should always be meaningful human control over every individual attack.
- Develops a comprehensive national policy that clarifies its previous statements and doctrine notes which further elaborates its position.
- At the UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Review Conference in December 2016, supports negotiations towards new international law to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons systems
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Ensuring meaningful human control, in the face of the weaponisation of robotics and AI – Article 36’s submission to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry on robotics and AI
UK should clarify policy, support new law on autonomous weapons – joint letter from NGOs sent in advance of the latest CCW talks
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