Recent developments in the EU in the defence and disruptive technologies sector are relevant to the wider international debate on the autonomy of weapons systems and the future of a legally binding instrument. Regulation (EU) 2021/697 establishing the European Defence Fund (EDF), and the rules of ethical screening of funding proposals from the EDF, contain elements that address autonomy in weapons systems – and introduces “meaningful human control” as a legal test.  

In a new short discussion paper for Article 36 – The European Defence Fund: autonomous weapons and the EU budget– Anna Turek outlines how the EU’s approach as reflected in the EDF Regulation might be considered and used constructively in the debate on autonomy in weapons. 

Established in 2021, the EDF supports EU collaborative research and development actions that aim to introduce new defence products and technologies. It is worth considering this new development in the context of the debate surrounding autonomous weapons for two reasons: 

  1. The EDF Regulation constitutes the first legally binding act endorsed at the international (EU) level that explicitly tackles one of the issues around autonomous weapons systems, by excluding from funding the development of some weapons systems that do not possess the possibility of meaningful human control over selection and engagement decisions.  
  2. The process for adopting the EDF Regulation illustrates agreement by a significant number of stakeholders including the European Parliament and the European Council which represents the governments of the twenty-seven member states. Most importantly, all twenty-seven EU Member States voted in favour of the adoption of the EDF Regulation.  

The enshrining in law of ‘meaningful human control’ and concerns around targeting humans through the EDF should be built upon by EU Member States and others during international discussions – acknowledging that the prohibitions and regulations in the EDF do not constitute a comprehensive response to these concerns and issues raised by autonomy in weapons systems. EDF officials should be invited to participate in international discussions, to explain how, practically, they implement the test of ‘meaningful human control’ under the legislation. Detailed elaboration of how this test is applied in practice would provide an important resource for the ongoing process of international rule-making on this issue. In addition, the EDF’s process of ethical screening of funding proposals, and the ethical principles used in that process, could serve as a point of reference when discussing the material scope and formulation of a future legally binding instrument.  

Last year’s UN General Assembly resolution on autonomous weapons systems, which 164 states voted in favour of, stressed the urgent need for the international community to address the challenges and concerns raised by AWS. The upcoming ‘Humanity at the Crossroads: Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Challenge of Regulation’ conference in Vienna next week will present a vital opportunity to take advantage of the growing momentum to advance discussions on the international regulation of AWS. In Austria, states must express their commitment to act and to move to negotiations on a legally binding instrument, building on international discussion and developments so far. States should also commit to submitting their views to the UN Secretary-General under the General Assembly resolution on ways forward: views from all stakeholders can be submitted until 25 May. 

Key messages 

The key messages in the report are: 

  • Regulation (EU) 2021/697 establishing the European Defence Fund is the first legally binding act endorsed at the EU level that explicitly tackles the issue of autonomy in weapons systems. It excludes from EDF funding work to develop “lethal autonomous weapons without the possibility for meaningful human control over selection and engagement decisions when carrying out strikes against humans (…).”  
  • The EU legislator recognised the need to address the issue of “lethal autonomous weapons specifically” which suggests that in the view of EU lawmakers, existing international law does not provide sufficient guidance on this. 
  • The EU legislator adopted the term “meaningful human control” as a legally significant test for evaluating the acceptability of weapons systems.
  • The EDF Regulation adopts a “two-tier” approach by: (i) defining categories of research and development actions that are excluded from funding and (ii) imposing requirements of compliance with relevant laws and ethical principles for non-prohibited actions.  

Read the report: The European Defence Fund: autonomous weapons and the EU budget 

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