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CCW Report, Vol. 6, No. 4

Lethal [autonomous] weapon
12 April 2018


Allison Pytlak

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In the 1987 action/comedy film Lethal Weapon a main character remarks, “I don't make things complicated. That's the way they get, all by themselves.”

While not necessarily a fan of the film, it came to mind for two reasons. Apart from the fact that its title bears obvious relevance to the name of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting this week, the concept of lethality in autonomous weapons has started to figure more regularly in GGE discussions.  The word “lethal” is being questioned by a widening group of states in the context of whether it is an adjective or qualifier that should continue to be placed in advance of the term “autonomous weapon system”.  On Wednesday, Poland joined others that have made this point earlier in the week. One reason for removing this word is, as Switzerland noted, that keeping it overlooks autonomous weapons that do not necessarily inflict physical death, but lead to physical injury. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that it is not lethality, but the use of force that triggers legal obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). Civil society organisations have made similar points at this and other meetings.

A second reason why this film came to mind is because this situation is becoming complicated—all on its own.  Wednesday took a hard focus on the “human element” in the use of lethal force. All governments are united in recognising the importance of human control but views differ sometimes significantly at which point in a system’s life cycle it is needed, and at what threshold. The GGE chair distributed visual aids to map out trends from the discussion on Wednesday, including a diagram outlining a spectrum of autonomy, and a list of the words used most frequently by states to describe thresholds of human control, such as “meaningful” or “sufficient”. This was useful in enabling discussion with greater detail, including with examples of real and hypothetical situations that developed in a natural way, however a few states felt that this was distracting and asking things overly complicated. China urged re-focusing discussion away from these questions, and—somewhat ironically for the purposes of this editorial—back to the question of lethality.

Another dimension that surfaced often on Wednesday is legal responsibility, in that humans, not machines, are beholden to law. This reinforces the importance of human control particularly for reasons of accountability under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as noted by Human Rights Watch.  

Human control is at the heart of the issue of autonomy from every perspective and necessary, as Brazil said, to meet the dictates of public conscience and the principles of humanity.

It’s good to get into the weeds a bit, and have a debate that actually is a debate— provided that input will soon be channeled to move the process forward, and that these are the right weeds to be in.  This is the the fifth time that countries have convened at the United Nations in Geneva to address the problems these weapons would pose if they were developed and put into use. Time is passing, and technology developing exponentially. It’s vital to move to the next stage, and into taking action.

Click to read the non-exhaustive summary of statements delivered on this subject, with a focus on views about the nature of human control, where to situate it, and issues of accountability.

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