Following international discussions to understand the subject matter, laying the groundwork for effective international regulation of ‘autonomous’ weapons now requires the elaboration of more detailed positions and proposals from the states and others engaged in this debate.

To support discussion, this new short paper sketches out areas where we see useful content developing, based on the outline of an international regulatory structure that we believe could effectively address the problem of increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems. This paper is based on a reading of states’ written submissions to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons this year and impressions from September’s Group of Government Experts discussions – but is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis, nor one that reflects all points of content raised.

Key messages

  • There are two key problems within the discussions on autonomous weapons that states need to solve: firstly, whether some systems within the scope of discussion are fundamentally unacceptable; and secondly, how human control can be maintained over the rest, in order to adequately uphold both legal obligations and more profound moral and ethical principles.
  • An effective structure for international legal regulation would prohibit certain configurations – such as systems that target people, and those that can’t be meaningfully controlled – and require positive obligations for meaningful human control over others, within a broad scope of sensor-based weapons systems that employ a particular process to apply force: that of matching sensor inputs to a “target profile” of characteristics following a system’s activation, emplacement, or deployment.
  • Within states’ contributions to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) this year, much substance has been elaborated that could support different elements within this approach. This could be brought together and developed as the groundwork towards a strong regulatory framework.

Key recommendations

  • Notwithstanding the consensus that might (or might not) be reached within the CCW on commonalities and recommendations, the key to achieving an effective international response will be in developing the content and substance of its building blocks, which states and others should continue to do.
  • There is space for states that find commonalities in each other’s positions on different elements of a regulatory structure to work together to build the content and substance of these shared understandings, for example through further collectively endorsed submissions to the CCW.

Featured image: A staircase at the UN office in Geneva: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

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