Ahead of the latest round of talks at the UN in Geneva on lethal autonomous weapons systems, UK based members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots today called on the government to: support the principle of maintaining meaningful human control over individual attacks, towards building international consensus on the issue of autonomous weapons; further elaborate UK policy on the measures that are needed to ensure that weapons remain under human control; and support the development of new international law to prevent the development of autonomous weapons, as a major developer of advanced military equipment.

Last year, the campaign called on the UK government to be at the forefront of international discussions to stop killer robots, and received a reply from the Foreign Secretary that emphasised “the UK is not developing and has no plans to develop LAWS” and noted that “the ability of a fully autonomous weapon system to meet all of the requirements of the [UK’s] targeting process would require a level of programming and technical complexity beyond the capacity of current technology, and indeed beyond even that envisaged for the future.” The UK maintains that new international law is not needed, and that existing law, including national legal reviews of weapons conducted by a small number of states, are adequate to meet the challenges posed by autonomous weapons.

However, the campaign considers that a comprehensive international ban on fully autonomous weapons systems is necessary to prevent the development of these dangerous technologies. There is currently no clear rule or consensus in international law on the type or level of human control or judgement that is needed to ensure that a weapon system is legal or is being operated legally. Our latest letter to the Foreign Secretary is reproduced in full below.

Update: in May 2016 we received a reply from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which can also be read here below.


Letter to the Foreign Secretary from UK members of the Campaign:

C/O Laura Boillot
Article 36
81 Rivington Street

Rt Hon Philip Hammond
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH

6 April 2016


Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you on the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) ahead of the third UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) expert meeting which will take place in Geneva from 11-15 April 2016.

We thank you for your letter dated 1 May 2015 (MIN/82703/2015) and welcome the United Kingdom’s engagement on this important issue. Furthermore, we welcome the commitments that “the UK is not developing and has no plans to develop LAWS”, and that “the operation of weapons systems will always be under human control”.

We believe that further developing these statements into policy that elaborates the necessary measures to ensure that weapons remain under human control in greater detail would be valuable. Whilst we appreciated the presentation on the UK armed forces’ targeting process presented at the last expert meeting, further clarification over how the UK will ensure that a weapon system will remain under human control after it has been released, and what constitutes a weapon, is needed. We also encourage the UK to publicly support the principle of meaningful human control over individual attacks.  We believe that this is in line with previous statements and could help establish a useful principle at the forthcoming CCW meeting in Geneva, which in turn could have a positive consensus-building effect internationally.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is calling for the development of a new international treaty to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons systems, weapons understood to operate without meaningful human control. We were disappointed that the UK has stated that it does not currently support the development of new international law that would prevent all states from developing these weapons systems. The UK is a major developer of advanced military equipment. It is clearly in our interest to ensure that all weapons systems remain under strict human control, and, as such, for the UK to be at the forefront of international discussions to prevent anyone developing autonomous weapons systems.

Lastly, we were encouraged by remarks in your previous letter which agreed that there was a need for the UK to consolidate its statements with regards to LAWS in order to present a clearer and more accessible policy. The UK does not appear to have acted on this yet and we would like to remind the UK of the value we attach to such an undertaking and of the positive example it would set internationally.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these points and to continuing to work constructively with the UK government on this issue in Geneva later this month and beyond.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Rebecca Johnson FRSA, Executive Director
Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy

Mr. Steven Smith MBE, Chief Executive Officer
Action on Armed Violence

Mr. Thomas Nash, Director
Article 36

Mr. Chris Cole, Director
Drone Wars UK

Ms. Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director
United Nations Association – UK


Reply received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH

May 2016

Our reference: MIN/96127/2016

Laura Boillot
Article 36
81 Rivington Street
London EC2A 3AY

Thank you for our letter of 6 April to the Foreign Secretary about the recent UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Informal Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), held in Geneva from 11-15 April 2016. I am replying as Minister responsible for Defence and International Security.

I am pleased that you continue to recognise the important role the UK plays in the international discussions on LAWS. Throughout our engagement on this issue we have been keen to share our position and also encourage others to do the same.

The UK is clear that operation of its weapons systems will always be under human control. We do not currently possess LAWS, and have no intention of ever seeking to develop lethal weapons that could operate without any human control. However, ‘meaningful human control’ is not a concept that we currently use in our policy or doctrine. This is principally because what may or may not be meaningful is an almost entirely subjective judgment. Therefore, any system based on this concept would be open to a wide range of interpretation. This level of ambiguity would not be helpful in framing future discussions. In essence, the UK understands that human control describes the relationship between weapons technology (that can in part function in a highly automated or autonomous manner) and the operator; a concept we describe as intelligent partnership. The UK also recognises the divergent views represented at the Informal Meeting of Experts last week on the term ‘meaningful human control’ and even on a working definition of LAWS.

Notwithstanding the UK’s commitment to never seek to develop fully autonomous weapons systems, we do not support the need now for a new international treaty to prohibit LAWS for three reasons:

  • Firstly, we believe that existing international humanitarian law is sufficient in assessing whether any future weapon system including LAWS would be capably of legal use, and in regulating any weapons’ use. For the UK, conducting weapons reviews, as mandated by Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention, is the correct vehicle for assessing all new weapons, methods or means of warfare. I note that some states, while not party to Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention, also conduct such reviews. We believe that the CCW should focus its efforts on increasing compliance with IHL due to its broad applicability, rather than negotiating a new treaty that might undermine existing International Humanitarian Law by creating the impression that it does not provide and appropriate and sufficient framework for the assessment and use of all weapons systems in armed conflict. While we may differ in our views on a pre-emptive ban, I hope you agree that encouraging greater compliance with existing laws has obvious merit.
  • Secondly, we believe strongly that there could be legitimate non-lethal advantages to increasingly autonomous technology in the future, for example, in increasing precision of weapons systems thereby reducing civilian casualties; improving humanitarian disaster relief or logistics. To seek a ban now, without a clear understanding of the potential opportunities as well as dangers of a technology, would risk leading to the use counter-productive and generalised language.
  • Finally, we believe firmly that it is too soon to ban something we simply cannot define. The recent CCW Informal Meeting of Experts highlighted the discrepancy in views over whether a prohibition would include existing highly automated systems. Further discussion is needed to reach consensus on a working definition of LAWS before substantive progress can be made.

The UK looks forward to future international meetings, and to further national dialogue on this topic. My officials are always ready to meet you for further discussions.

Yours sincerely,

Tobias Ellwood MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State


Read more

Ensuring meaningful human control, in the face of the weaponisation of robotics and AI – Article 36 submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into robotics and AI

UK and LAWS thumbnailThe United Kingdom and lethal autonomous weapons systems

Briefing paper
April 2016

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