The UK government has acknowledged that “an essential first step” for the formal international talks on killer robots in 2017 will be “to establish working definitions of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems [LAWS] and ‘human control’”. This emphasis on the need for states to agree on what ‘human control’ should be taken to mean in the context of the debate on autonomy in weapons systems represents a positive development in UK policy.

Previously, the UK has emphasised that human control will be maintained in its use of weapons systems – but without setting out in detail what this means in practice, and without acknowledgement that discussing what human control over weapons systems means could be a key part of moving forward international discussion on this issue.

Article 36 has argued that states’ discussions on LAWS should be structured around deciding what constitutes meaningful human control over weapons systems, and setting legally binding standards that prohibit any systems that would fall outside these parameters. Such an approach enables states to talk on an equal footing about the issues of core concern that increasing autonomy in weapons systems raise – irrespective of their individual levels of technological development or knowledge in this area, and without embarking on a definitional exercise regarding technologies that could quickly become out of date.

This statement from the UK on the importance of defining human control was in a response to a joint letter from UK members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, sent to the Foreign Secretary before the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons Review Conference in December. At the Review Conference, states decided to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the issue of LAWS in 2017 – marking the start of formal talks on this issue, following a series of informal expert meetings over the past three years. Our letter can be found here, and the response is reproduced in full below.

Parliamentary questions were also asked to the government in advance of the Review Conference, on defining the level of human control necessary in the operation of weapons systems, on UK government support for the establishment of the GGE to lead work in 2017, and on the threat of autonomous weapons systems and the control regimes that are needed to address these. In their answers, the government emphasised their support for the GGE, that the UK’s weapons would always remain under human control, and that they have no intention of developing fully autonomous weapons systems. The UK still does not support a pre-emptive international ban on these systems – despite the serious issues that they raise, and the significant advantages that clarification of the international legal regime in relation to them would bring given that other states do have serious intentions in this area.


Full response to UK NGOs joint letter in advance of the CCW Review Conference:

c/o Ministry of Defence

Mr Richard Moyes
Article 36

6 January 2017

Dear Mr Moyes,

Thank you for your letter to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of 2 December 2016 regarding Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. I am replying as Head of the FCO Conventional Arms Policy Team within the Counter Proliferation and Arms Control Centre.

I welcome your acknowledgment of the UK’s policy towards such systems and its commitment to maintaining human control over its weapon systems as a guarantee of oversight and accountability. We are firm in that commitment. The UK does not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and has no intention of developing them.

There is currently no internationally agreed definition of lethal autonomous weapons systems. The UK defines such systems as those capable of understanding higher level intent and direction allied to a sophisticated perception of its environment, and therefore able to take appropriate action to bring about a desired state. Such a system would be capable of deciding a course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control, although these may still be present. Based on this definition we believe that fully autonomous weapon systems do not yet exist and are not likely to do so for many years, if at all. It is the policy of the Government that the operation of our weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of human oversight, authority and accountability for weapons use.

I welcome the decision taken by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons at its Review Conference in December to establish a Group of Governmental Experts to further explore this issue in 2017. An essential first step of this group will be to establish working definitions of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systemas and ‘human control’. It is very difficult to discuss, let alone regulate or prohibit, something we are unable to define. The UK supported establishing such a group and looks forward to playing a constructive role in its discussions.

The UK does not support a pre-emptive ban on such systems. As you note, specific forms of weapon have been banned previously, but we judge that existing International Humanitarian Law is sufficient to control and regulate Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. Whatever the characteristics of such weapons they would not be capable of satisfying International Humanitarian Law in the critical areas of proportionality and discrimination, and it is therefore highly likely they would be de facto illegal under existing regulations. It is also highly likely that there will be legitimate non-lethal advantages to increasingly autonomous technology in the future. Any pre-emptive ban could stifle this research, depriving the UK of the benefits of significant development in areas such as logistics, surveillance, communications and data management.

Continued dialogue in this area is important and officials from broth Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence will remain fully engaged in this debate.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Larkin
Head, Conventional Arms Policy Team (FCO)
Counter Proliferation and Arms Control Centre


Image: UK parliament. Photo: Eric Huybrechts

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