The Institute for European Studies at the United Nations

From 27 – 31 August the Institute for European Studies was represented by doctoral researcher Maaike Verbruggen at the Second Session of the Group of Governmental Experts of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on Lethal Autonomous Weapons System at the United Nations in Geneva.Maaike Verbruggen attended the meeting in the context of her doctoral research on Military Innovation in Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence.


What are Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems?

Advances in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics have not left the defence sector untouched, and militaries around the world are interested in exploring what utility they can provide to their Armed Forces. Activists, spearheaded by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, are concerned that this interest will lead to the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) or killer robots: weapon systems that are capable of selecting targets and making the final decision to engage in a strike on their own, without a human operator. Therefore, they are calling for a ban on the development and use of LAWS altogether. 



What is the discussion about?

There are different issues at play here. One question is whether LAWS as a category of weapon systems are fundamentally unable to comply with International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the law that seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict, and thus should be banned as a whole, or whether existing IHL suffices to regulate their use. A second question is whether it is unethical for machines to make the ultimate decision over life or death, and what role ethics should have in the regulation of weapon systems, which is mostly a legal and political matter. A third question is what impact LAWS might have on international security, and whether their development might lead to a new arms race. Or might they actually make war a little bit more humane, if future weapon systems could be programmed to avoid civilian targets like schools and hospitals? There is no international consensus on the potential challenges that LAWS pose and how to counter them.


How did the meeting fare?

In face of the above issues, the question of LAWS has been discussed in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons at the United Nations since 2014. The State Parties are generally all of the opinion that human control over target selection and engagement is important. However, they disagree on which weapon systems fall in the category of LAWS and where to draw the line; what the necessary level of human control is and how to define it; and whether existing law is sufficient to regulate LAWS or whether additional regulation is needed. As such, in this meeting the State Parties decided to not yet start with formally negotiating a potential regulatory instrument, but to meet again next year to discuss the issues more in depth. However, they did come together in drafting 10 guiding principles or emerging commonalities which will aid with next year’s discussions.


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