“The disarmament community has a proud history of anticipating weapons, means and methods of warfare.” – High Representative opens UNODA-ICRC side event on legal reviews of weapons at the Vienna Conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems

April 30th, 2024

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) partnered up with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to organize a side event in the margins of the Vienna Conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems. The event focused on legal reviews of new weapons, including those conducted under Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.

Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, set the scene and outlined various challenges and solutions thereto when conducing legal reviews of weapons.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs stressed that legal reviews were an important safeguard in preventing the unlawful uses of weapons, means and methods of warfare. She indicated that whilst it is difficult to definitely assess how many States conduct legal reviews, it is estimated at around 20 States. The High Representative surveyed some of the challenges facing States conducting legal reviews. To overcome these, she suggested the establishment of a mechanism to provide transparency of national policies and strategies, the sharing of good practices and requiring weapons manufacturers to conduct legal reviews in order to complement State obligations.

The side event provided an opportunity for the High Representative to announce UNODA’s upcoming online portal, which will allow States to share policy, practice and lessons learned related to legal reviews with a focus on new and emerging technologies.

Speakers at the UNODA-ICRC side event (from left to right): Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu (Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs), Ms. Georgia Hinds (Legal Adviser, International Committee of the Red Cross), Mr. Richard Moyes (Director, Article 36), Ms. Netta Goussac (Special Counsel, Lexbridge), Mr. Claudio Medeiros Leopoldino (Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Brazil to the Conference on Disarmament).

Ms. Georgia Hinds of the ICRC, who served as moderator of the panel, informed the audience about the ICRC’s work on legal reviews, including the upcoming publication of the update to ICRC’s Guide to the Legal Review of New Weapons, Means and Methods of Warfare. Ms. Hinds stated that legal reviews are not a panacea and that such reviews cannot assess whether the law itself is adequate to address the new developments. Ms. Hinds noted that the ICRC has been pleased to see how the discussion on autonomous weapons systems has led to greater attention being paid to the obligation to conduct legal reviews.

The panel was comprised of expert speakers on the topic. Ms. Netta Goussac (Special Counsel, Lexbridge) indicated that the legal process of decision making related to the acquisition or development of weapons, means or methods of warfare serves at least two purposes: a) it prevents the acquisition of weapons that are incapable of being used lawfully, and b) it puts caveats and limitations on how the weapons, means or methods of warfare can be employed. Ms. Goussac also pointed out that the outcome of a legal review may be that the development and acquisition of a weapon, means or method of warfare is a) unlawful, b) lawful, or c) lawful under certain circumstances but not in others.  

Mr. Richard Moyes (Director, Article 36) underlined that legal reviews bring the legal sphere and the practical world of weapons closer together, offering a generative space. Mr. Moyes indicated that legal reviews of weapons are important but that such reviews should not replace prohibition and regulation of weapons, such as in the case of autonomous weapons systems. Mr. Moyes pointed to the developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, posing new challenges to adhering to international law.  

Finally, Mr. Claudio Medeiros Leopoldino (Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Brazil to the Conference on Disarmament) informed the audience of Brazil’s regulatory framework, including the existing decree (no 10.030) that established principles, classifications, definitions and rules for inspection of controlled products (i.e., prohibited items, unrestricted items, those that are subject to restrictions). Mr. Leopoldino recalled Brazil’s proposal to the Group of Governmental Experts of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, regarding the possibility to use the First Global Ontological Standard for Ethically Driven Robotics and Automation Systems of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as a building block for confidence-building measures. He reiterated Brazil’s support of the industry standards put forward by IEEE as a useful tool for ethical review of technological developments.

The side event concluded with the speakers’ responding to questions from the audience and providing recommendations in conducting legal reviews.

Watch here the full recording of the Vienna Conference on Autonomous Weapons Systems, including panels featuring the High Representative and Dr Beyza Unal, Head of UNODA’s Science and Technology Unit. A chair’s summary of the two-day conference is available here