Alistair Burt is the Minister for Counter Proliferation in the UK Foreign Office

Alistair Burt, Minister for Counter Proliferation, responded to Nia Griffith MP, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Weapons and Protection of Civilians

At a parliamentary debate called by Nia Griffith MP on 17 June the UK Minister for Counter Proliferation, Alistair Burt MP provided further information on British policy regarding fully autonomous weapons.

In response to Nia Griffith, who is Vice-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Weapons and Protection of Civilians, the Minister stressed that the UK does not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and has no intention of developing them.

In a significant statement, the Minister noted that by the UK Government’s interpretation existing international law applicable to weapons would prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons, which he agreed can be defined as weapons which, once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention.

“As I had the chance to read the hon. Lady’s speech before the debate, I noticed that she used the phrase “Furthermore, robots may never be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law”. She is absolutely correct; they will not. We cannot develop systems that would breach international humanitarian law, which is why we are not engaged in the development of such systems and why we believe that the existing systems of international law should prevent their development.”

By recognising that fully autonomous weapons “will not” be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law, this position provides a significantly stronger barrier to the development of fully autonomous weapons than the government’s previously stated position, presented at the UN Human Rights Council on 30 May, that existing IHL is sufficient to regulate the development and use of such weapons.

However, a certain ambiguity reappeared when the Minister noted later in the debate that:

“We think the Geneva conventions and additional protocols provide a sufficiently robust framework to regulate the development and use of these weapon systems.”

If ‘regulate’ in this context can be taken to mean ‘prohibit’ then these positions are coherent, The government should make whether it is saying that existing law prevents the development of fully autonomous weapons or whether it is saying that existing law is sufficient for regulating their development and use.

The government’s position in relation to the implementation of national moratorium as recommended in the recent report to the Human Rights Council by UN special rapporteur Christof Heyns also remains inconsistent with its national position, which it has now articulated very strongly:

“The United Kingdom, having made its own decision that it is not developing these weapons, believes that the basis of the legal system on weaponry is such as to prevent that development.”

Despite this strong rejection of fully autonomous weapons, the Minister noted that:

“The United Kingdom has unilaterally decided to put in place a restrictive policy whereby we have no plans at present to develop lethal autonomous robotics, but we do not intend to formalise that in a national moratorium.”

It would seem straightforward to move from such a strong national position to a formalised national moratorium and a leading role within an international process to prohibit such weapons. The government did not provide any reason as to why a moratorium would be inappropriate, other than to speculate on the level of support amongst other countries for such a course of action.

Whilst significant issues still require more detailed elaboration, Article 36 believes this parliamentary debate has been very valuable in prompting reflection and Ministerial scrutiny of UK policy on fully autonomous weapons and narrowing down the areas on which further discussions should focus. It appears clear now that there will be scope for such discussions to take place with the UK and other states in the near future. Confirming the UK’s willingness to participate in such discussions, the Minister noted that:

“…we stand ready to participate in the international debate and we agree that the convention on certain conventional weapons seems the right place for this important issue.”

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