Retaining Meaningful Human Control of Weapons Systems

October 18th, 2018

On 17 October, a panel discussion entitled Retaining Meaningful Human Control of Weapons Systems was held on the side of the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security.

The event was a collaboration between Human Rights Watch’s Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations. Campaign Coordinator Mary Wareham and Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi shared chairing duties.

Ambassador Hajnoczi began by highlighting the importance of the discussion. He explained that machines with autonomy to end human life raise issues for disarmament, ethics and human rights.

“Once they are introduced onto the battlefield, it might be too late,” said the Ambassador.

The room subsequently heard from three distinguished panelists.

Lucy Suchman from the International Committee for Robot Arms Control outlined the history of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). She argued that meaningful human control requires humans to deliberate about a target before initiating any and every attack. A legally binding instrument prohibiting LAWS should be negotiated through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The next speaker was Branka Marijan from Project Ploughshares. She explained how LAWS spark concerns about civilian casualties and compliance with international humanitarian law. Although LAWS could improve precision, this would lower the threshold for armed conflict.

“It will make war cheaper.”

Michael Klare from the Arms Control Association gave the final statement, sharing Ms Marijan’s fear about legal violations during armed conflict.

“Machines can never be entrusted with the responsibility of split-second decisions regarding the application of those laws,” he said.

Mr Klare also noted the risk LAWS pose to nuclear security. Deploying LAWS could compromise the principle of mutually assured destruction and increase the risk of nuclear war.

He concluded by calling for the adoption of a legal instrument requiring meaningful human control over all weapons systems.

Ms Wareham suggested three strategies for States to stop ‘killer robots.’ They could articulate their views during the First Committee, support calls for a negotiating mandate at the CCW and develop relevant domestic policies.

She and Ambassador Hainocazi then opened the floor for questions.

In response to a question concerning what tools were available to complement a legally binding instrument, Ms Marijan suggested regulations and codes of conduct from the technology community.

An audience member commented that some States are denying they are creating LAWS and drones have been largely excluded from discussions at the CCW.

Ms Marijan agreed it was unfair that States are being kept in the dark. She called upon States who are developing LAWS to be honest about their knowledge. “The technology we’re talking about is far from science fiction.”

Mr Klare acknowledged it was challenging promoting dialogue between the major powers. The public needs to promote the idea that States have a responsibility to the rest of the world.

Ms Suchman believed that drones were relevant to CCW discussions because they raise the same issue around the principle of distinction as LAWS do.

After the questions and answers, Ambassador Hajnoczi made some brief closing remarks, stating that the event showcased how security issues were interlinked.


Drafted by Victoria Brownlee