From 12-17 December in Geneva, states will meet for the Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The CCW was negotiated to progressively develop international law and place restrictions or prohibitions on weapons that have been deemed problematic or unacceptable.

The development of autonomous weapons has been a key area of consideration for the CCW over the past three years. The serious ethical, legal and humanitarian issues these weapons pose demands a strong response from states. States will be deciding at this Review Conference whether to take discussion of this issue beyond the informal consideration it has been given so far, by forming a Group of Governmental Experts next year.

The UK has so far opposed any moves to a new treaty to ban autonomous weapons. In advance of the Review Conference, UK members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots wrote to the government (following up on our previous correspondence), urging them to change this position and work against the development and proliferation of these weapons, given that the UK has pledged not to acquire them themselves. We also called on the government to support consensus at the CCW on the establishment of formal talks on the autonomous weapons issue next year.

Our letter is reproduced below, and previous correspondence with the UK government can be found here.

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

2 December 2016

Re: Will the UK work at the UN to prevent killer robots?

Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you on the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems ahead of the fifth Review Conference of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which will take place in Geneva from 11-15 December 2016.

‘Lethal autonomous weapons’ systems refers to the development of computerised weapon systems that would be able to attack people or objects independent of human control – also described as killer robots.

We welcome the statement in your department’s letter of May 2016 (MIN/96127/2016) that the UK has “no intention of ever seeking to develop lethal weapons that could operate without any human control,” as well as the UK’s statement to the CCW in April that the “operation of its weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of human oversight, authority and accountability for weapons use.” We also welcome the FCO’s positive response (MIN/82703/2015) to concerns that UK policy on these weapons remains unclear and note that HMG’s commitment to “reflect on how best UK policy can be further developed and articulated” appears to remain outstanding.

However, we believe it would be valuable to build from this a national policy that specifies the measures necessary to ensure that weapons remain under human control in the future. This would provide an important contribution to international agreement on what level of human control over weapons systems is acceptable, as well as necessary for the use of weapons in compliance with international law – under which we believe it is clear that only human beings can be responsible for making legal judgements.

The report of the CCW’s April 2016 expert meeting on autonomous weapons – adopted by consensus – recommended the establishment of an open-ended Group of Governmental Experts to examine and agree on options for addressing this issue. At the upcoming Review Conference of the CCW, we urge the UK to uphold this consensus, and to support the establishment of a Group of Governmental Experts to undertake more detailed discussions on the international legal responses needed to address the threat of autonomous weapon systems.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is calling for a new international legal instrument to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons – understood as weapon systems operating without meaningful human control – as the only appropriate response. Given the pace of technological development, and that many States interpret international law in different ways, we are disappointed that the UK maintains the position that it does not currently support a new international law that would prevent all states from developing such systems in the future.

We would welcome your reassurance that the UK will work against a proliferation of killer robots in the future, and to continuing to work constructively with the UK government on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Moyes
Managing Director, Article 36

Also on behalf of:

Chris Cole, Drone Wars UK
Ben Donaldson, United Nations Association – UK
Ann Feltham, Campaign Against the Arms Trade
Dr. Rebecca Johnson, Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy
Iain Overton, Action on Armed Violence

Image: UK parliament. Photo: Eric Huybrechts

Posted in: Autonomous weapons,