First round of government talks on killer robots set to start at UN
States will hold a first round of discussions on ‘lethal autonomous weapons systems’ in an informal meeting of experts at the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva from 13-16 May 2014.
Whilst there has been steady concern raised over autonomous weapons systems over the past several years by organisations, academics and other experts, as well as the launch last year of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, it is promising that this issue is now being taken up by governments this week.
This is the first time governments have had dedicated discussions on the issue, following the launch, in London last year, of an international campaign to ban the weapons.
Governments, civil society, international organisations and other experts, will discuss technical, ethical, legal and military/operational issues around these weapons systems, and the French Ambassador who is chairing the meeting will issue a report on the final day summarising the discussions. A decision on next steps will be taken at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in November.
The main concern for Article 36 is over weapons systems that operate without meaningful human control. In current practice there is an expectation that human control is exercised over when weapons are used, where they are used and how weapons are used, as well as over their effects. This is implicit in existing international law governing the use of force. So, clearly, deploying autonomous weapons systems outside of any kind of human control is neither ethically nor legally acceptable.
Increasingly however, autonomous weapons systems may erode what we have come to expect in terms of human control over weapons. Whilst there seems to be broad agreement that the operation of weapons systems must remain under some sort of human control, the key is to explain how this ‘human control’ is understood, and to delineate the nature of human control that must be present for the use of a weapon system to be acceptable.
A first principle for addressing concerns regarding autonomous weapons systems, states should formulate as an explicit legal requirement that there be meaningful human control over individual attacks.
In that regard, the CCW meeting of experts offers an important opportunity for government delegations to:
- Reaffirm that meaningful human control must be exercised over the use of weapons, and express concern over future weapons that could operate without meaningful human control;
- Explain how human control is exercised over existing weapons systems, especially those termed “automatic” or “semi-autonomous”, and, where applicable, explain how present practice informs states’ policy orientation towards autonomous weapons in the future;
- Where applicable, explain how ‘human control’, or its equivalent, is defined in relevant national policies, and finally
- Support the development of an explicit prohibition, under international humanitarian law, of weapons systems operating without meaningful human control over individual attacks.
Article 36 has also produced a paper ahead of the meeting entitled “key areas for debate on autonomous weapons systems”.