UN GGE on LAWS: Day 1 (afternoon)

26 Mar 2019 01:00h

Event report

The session focused on item 5(d) Characterisation of LAWS, in order to promote a common understanding of concepts and characteristics relevant to the objectives and purposes of the convention. Focusing on the application of IHL, the session was guided by the following clarifying questions, proposed by the chair:

Which characteristics of autonomous weapons systems would be important from the point of view of IHL and the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW) specifically?  

  • Is autonomy an attribute of a weapon system as a whole or should it be attached to different tasks of weapons systems?
  • Is the environment of deployment, specific constraints on time of operation, or scope of movement over an area, important from an IHL/CCW perspective?
  • Is a differentiation between anti-personnel and anti-material weapons meaningful from an IHL/CCW perspective?
  • The session was characterised by discussions on three main points: the need for human control in order to ensure compliance with IL and IHL; the distinction between civilian uses of new technologies and military applications; the need for a definitive or working definition for LAWS.

Delegations recalled the need of having a human-centric approach, underlining human control as a necessary element. As explained by a delegation, the use of systems that do not have human control mechanisms is prohibited by existing legal frameworks. Therefore,  IHL prohibits the use of LAWS because they do not have the capacity of applying the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions. This view was complemented by the argument that human control is an indispensable variable to avoid the dehumanisation of wars. In addition to that, delegations stressed the need for review of new systems in accordance to Art. 36 API and systems which are not in compliance with IL and IHL should not be deployed. In this context, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) contribution should be highlighted. The ICRC proposed a distinction between weapons systems in which the human actor chooses the objective; and weapon systems in which the exact time and location is determined by the weapon according to the environment (found to a limited extent in air defense systems). Especially in the last case, it is essential to ensure meaningful human control.

The unprecedented characteristic of LAWS is the reliance of technologies which might be useful in civilian activities. As a result, some delegations such reiterated the need to distinguish between military and civilian uses of new technologies, arguing that the development of new technologies should not be restricted for civilian uses.

However, the main topic of discussion was on the question of whether a definition for LAWS is crucial for the future work of the GGE, and on the elements that should characterise this definition. While on one hand, a delegation argued for the necessity of a clear and universally agreed understanding of what LAWS are, other delegations pointed out that a definition is not indispensable and does not prevent the positive outcomes of the future work of the UN GGE on LAWS. Recalling the need to have a clear understanding of the topic of discussion, a delegation proposed to agree on a working definition; whereas others reminded that as well as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) does not include a definition for nuclear weapons, the same logic can be applied to LAWS, even considering that too narrow technical definitions can become soon obsolete with the disruptive and rapid evolution of new technologies. Following this line, it was argued that definitions have to be pragmatic and not abstract. A final intervention from the floor argued that negotiating a binding definition for LAWS is a premature step. Nonetheless, the need for a better understanding of the systems was largely shared and featured by many interventions highlighting the elements that characterise a LAWS. The following represent the most recurrent ones:

  • Concept of full autonomy: Refers to the notion of a system able to operate independently without the intervention, decision, and command of a human actor. The concept of autonomy was questioned by one delegation with the argument that it represents a relative term: as a result, the delegation proposed to change the wording with ‘weapon systems having autonomous features or functions’. On this point, it was underlined that the notion of a fully autonomous system has limited utility.
  • Design to conduct military tasks without human operator: Refers to the idea that these systems are able to run through a targeting cycle, with the final intention to apply lethal force, without any human intervention (described in the working paper CCW/GGE.1/2019/WP.4 – Food for Thought Paper, submitted by Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg).
  • Design, location, and target is not known to the human operator: Refers to the idea of machine learning systems which are able to adapt to complex environment scenarios and select the appropriate actions to accomplish their mandate. With regards to this variable, a delegation proposed three additional elements: self-mobility, self-direction ability, self-determination ability.
  • Lethality: Represented one of the most contested element. While some delegations stressed it as an indispensable variable in the definition of LAWS, a delegation argued against the notion of lethality as being a prerequisite in the characterisation of LAWS, justifying the statement with the idea that non-lethal systems can have lethal effects and implications when deployed.
  • Indiscriminate feature: Implies a loss in the principle of distinction and proportionality under IHL.
  • Ability to redefine without human intervention (explicitly described in the Food for Thought Paper): Refers to the notion of learning from the complex environment in which the system has been deployed and take decisions for the accomplishment of the mission without human intervention.
  • Lack of chain of commands once the system is deployed
  • Reliability and predictability: refers to the need of systems to satisfy high standards.
  • Ability to impose constraints once the weapons are deployed: Refers to the possibility to always take control of the system even when it is deployed. In other words, it refers to the idea of being able to have the human control over the system at all times.