This week in Geneva, states are meeting to discuss the issue of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems under the framework of a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Progress on this issue at the international level has been far too slow. In the context of increasing autonomy in weapons systems and the fast pace of technological development, states must urgently draw a line, through new international law, to ensure that adequate levels of human control are retained in the use of force.

Article 36 and the United Nations Association – UK, members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, have written to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this week calling on the government to shift its position and show leadership on this issue before it is too late. Our letter is reproduced below. See also our previous correspondence with the government on this issue here.

UPDATE: In their reply to our letter, the government said that “it has been the UK’s consistent view that the GGE should focus on establishing working definitions of LAWS and Meaningful Human Control.” Though there are other concerns regarding government policy, the UK’s support for defining meaningful human control is very welcome and will be productive to states’ discussions, towards reaching an international standard on this issue. With a further GGE on autonomous weapons approved for 2018 at the CCW, the reply also noted that these discussions should focus on “the characterisation of LAWS, the human element in the use of force, and the interaction between humans and machines.” Read the full reply here.


Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Cc. Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Defence

9 November 2017

Dear Secretary of State,

Ahead of the meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems at the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), beginning in Geneva on 13 November 2017, we are urging the UK to show leadership on this issue and to work with the international community to define a global standard for the level of human control necessary in weapons systems.

Over the past decade, rapid advances in technology have powered the development of increasing autonomy in the ‘critical functions’ of weapons – such as in the identification, selection and engagement of target objects.

The UK’s recent acknowledgment that its definition of a ‘lethal autonomous weapons system’ (LAWS) differs from those of other states, as contained in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) publication on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, highlights the need for international consensus to be built on this issue. Reaching such consensus is squarely in the national interest given the risks that would be posed to international peace and security by the deployment of such systems either within or outside theatres of armed conflict.

We are concerned that by defining LAWS as weapons with a hypothetical “ability to understand higher-level intent,” the UK is effectively giving a green light for the development of future weapons systems with an unacceptably high degree of autonomy. The MoD publication also missed an opportunity to address the range of ethical, human rights and humanitarian law challenges posed by LAWS.

The slow pace of discussions at the CCW, coupled with this year’s delays to the meeting of the GGE, is highly concerning. Earlier this year leading figures from the technology industry, led by Elon Musk, warned that “we do not have long to act”, stating that lethal autonomous weapons could usher in the “third revolution in warfare”.

As a permanent member of the UN Security-Council and a strong advocate for the multilateral system, the UK is in an influential position to increase the pace of discussions on this issue to help ensure a global standard is agreed before it is too late.

Yours sincerely, 

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director
United Nations Association – UK

Richard Moyes, Managing Director
Article 36


Teaser image: UK parliament. Photo: Eric Huybrechts

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