On 4 March 2021 Article 36 Advisor Elizabeth Minor gave a (virtual) presentation to a European Parliament hearing on “The external policy dimension of AI” (Artificial Intelligence) convened by its committees on Artificial Intelligence in the Digital Age (AIDA) and Defence (SEDE).

The European Parliament has passed resolutions supporting an international treaty on autonomous weapons, and the draft regulation of the European Defence Fund (which will fund research, development and acquisition of military technologies amongst EU member states) will prohibit the funding of certain autonomous weapons. Nevertheless, Europe could do more to lead in this policy area and adopt progressive positions towards the effective international regulation of increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems.

The full hearing can be watched here and Article 36’s presentation is reproduced below:


Joint hearing on the external policy dimension of AI: AI, cybersecurity and defence. European Parliament AIDA-SEDE joint hearing, 4 March 2021, 13.45-15.45

Remarks by Elizabeth Minor, Advisor, Article 36

Thanks for having me. I’m speaking from Article 36, a UK-based NGO working for stronger international standards on weapons and civilian protection, which is part of the global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

We were very pleased to see strong support from the European Parliament (EP) for an international treaty on autonomous weapons in its 2018 and 2021 resolutions, as well as support from the EU High Level Expert Group on AI for a treaty. This sends an important signal to the EU and European states.

In my 5 minutes I want to make 3 points about moving towards the international regulation of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) (which include some military applications of AI, but also other systems):

  • Firstly, the international discussion is now at a point where states must consider in detail how regulation could be structured
  • Secondly, effective international legal regulation in this area must include both positive obligations to retain meaningful human control and prohibitions on certain types of weapons systems
  • Thirdly, the European Defence Fund (EDF) regulation requirements on AWS should be boldly and progressively interpreted in putting it into practice

Though international discussion on AWS can be quite wide-ranging, in general increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems brings challenges to human dignity, civilian protection and the law, the understanding of systems and responsibility in the use of force, and global peace and security. These all are global values and concerns that are important to Europe.

There is now significant common ground amongst states acknowledging that collective work is needed to describe what human control over weapons systems is required to uphold legal principles and respond to ethical concerns.

There is not however agreement on the need for an international legal instrument for regulation. Many states developing these capabilities have spoken against doing this – perhaps because they would prefer to have these systems before considering controls, despite the global risks that might carry.

We think that agreeing a treaty even without all countries participating would nevertheless be valuable. There is a real need to work through these complex issues and set clear and strong standards that can influence practice and future agreements.

What is needed now is for countries to discuss in detail the content, substance and structure of an international treaty of regulation, to draw these lines. Europe should seek to play a progressive leading role in this: the EU and European states position themselves as strong supporters of multilateralism and global rules, and Europe is already seeking to lead in standard setting around emerging technologies.

Because AWS is an issue of systems and configurations rather than a clear class of physical weapons technologies, international regulation needs to include both positive obligations on states to ensure control over weapons systems, and prohibitions on clearly unacceptable developments. Systems that cannot be controlled should be prohibited, and in our opinion so should autonomous systems that target people, as these would undermine human dignity and threaten civilian protection.

In this context, it is significant to see the draft regulation establishing the EDF draw a legal line against supporting “action for the development” of certain autonomous weapons.

This part of the regulation will need to be operationalised and put into practice.

Given the regulation’s definition could be read narrowly as addressing only systems that are “without the possibility for meaningful human control” and that are used in “strikes against humans” in particular, it would be beneficial to consider how it could be interpreted perhaps closer to the EP’s definition from 2018 to address uncontrollable systems used to strike targets other than people, and also the much wider range of systems designed with the possibility for adequate control, but which could be deployed problematically in practice in the absence of clear rules.

In any case, there is an opportunity to contribute to standard setting on what constitutes a system that cannot be meaningfully controlled, which is part of the problem at hand, and to elaborate what meaningful human control over weapons systems should entail.

A process open to external advice and input on public proposals would be very important for for the putting this part of the EDF regulation into practice, and it should also be taken back to national capitals. European states and institutions should take the opportunity to lead progressively and to feed useful work at the European level into international deliberations.

With the threat to global peace and security that AWS and the arms race to develop them poses, strong international standards are essential. It is in the interests of progressive states to join together to create these standards and address the collective risks. Europe should play a leading role in this process.

Featured image: Outside the European Parliament in Bruseels during the 2019 elections. Photo: European Parliament https://flic.kr/p/3cTbyy

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