Lords Inquiry on AI in weapons systems: UK government must commit to action at UNGA
By Elizabeth Minor
Action in the UN General Assembly this autumn will offer a way forward in the deadlocked international conversation on regulating autonomy in weapons systems. If it is to be a leader on AI norm-setting, the UK government must make clear that it will support the initiative for a resolution that is being proposed on this issue.
On Thursday 7 September, the House of Lords Inquiry on AI in Weapons Systems will be hearing from the UK Minister for Defence Procurement. This will be the only evidence session when this parliamentary committee will be able to question a member of the government.
It is perhaps telling of the government’s political orientation that the Inquiry will not be hearing from a (more senior) Secretary of State – and that the government presumably considers the national procurement of new weapons technologies, rather than wider international policy concerns, the appropriate frame when it comes to the issue of ‘AI in weapons systems’. The draft questions limit their concerns to narrow issues of training data and the risks of non-state actors – rather than broader questions of harm, risk, and the lines of acceptability that must be collectively drawn when it comes to increasing ‘autonomy’ in weapons systems and the integration of advanced computational techniques.
Nevertheless, the Minister, as a representative of the government, should be questioned by committee members on the UK’s stance on the international regulation of autonomous weapons systems, and specifically its support for action in the UN General Assembly.
Stalled international discussions
Discussions on the international regulation of autonomous weapons systems are currently stalled in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), where countries have been considering the issues for a decade. Though there has been considerable policy progress and convergence on points such as how the regulation of autonomy in weapons systems might be structured through prohibitions and positive obligations, the CCW is politically deadlocked.
In recent years Russia in particular has used the forum’s consensus rule as an effective veto on any activity other than allocating a small number of days of further consideration between states each year. Despite this, the CCW remains the UK’s favoured international forum for discussing autonomy in weapons systems.
Support for legally binding instrument to regulate autonomy in weapons systems is growing, with over 90 countries having now expressed a position in favour of such action. Other countries – including the UK, which is currently opposed to a new treaty – have recognised the need for some sort of action for regulation, including weaker guidelines. The UN Secretary-General recently implored states to negotiate a treaty by 2026.
Progress on any of these options cannot be made in the CCW currently, meaning work in other forums is needed.
And, as we noted in Article 36’s written evidence to the parliamentary Inquiry, it is urgent that international norms and standards are set through new law by those who are willing to do so, now. If new international law is not developed, standards will still be be set – but by the practice and behaviour of the users of autonomous weapons systems, risking a race to the bottom for military advantage, and with predictably unacceptable humanitarian consequences.
Opportunity: a UN General Assembly resolution
In this context, a group of countries led by Austria – building on a widely supported joint statement to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last year, which the UK joined – have drafted elements for a resolution on autonomous weapons systems that will be presented at the UN General Assembly this autumn. The UK will have seen a draft of this resolution.
Recognising the need to address the challenges raised by autonomous weapons systems, the resolution will request the UN Secretary-General to seek the views of member states and others on ways forward. This will provide a way of establishing an alternative pathway for action on autonomous weapons systems through the General Assembly. The UNGA is more inclusive of the CCW as it includes all states, and, crucially, operates by majority voting rather than consensus.
The need for UK support and leadership
The UK government must commit to leadership when it comes to this initiative – and committee members should take the opportunity to press the Minister on whether, as a government that has frequently flaunted its commitment to leading global norm-setting when it comes to AI regulation, it will do so.
The government must support a UN General Assembly resolution on autonomous weapons systems, through voting in favour and co-sponsoring it this autumn. The government should also seek to join the group of states leading work on autonomous weapons systems in the UN General Assembly into the coming years. In doing so, the government must also come to admit that a legally binding instrument would be the most effective way forward for setting norms on the regulation of autonomy in weapons systems.
It must not remain wedded to the CCW as the only forum for discussions, given that the possibility of progress there is blocked. Backing the resolution will be a key test of whether the UK will work seriously to address international concern around increasing autonomy in weapons systems.
In our written evidence submitted in April, Article 36 called on the government to “continue to support engagement on AWS at the UNGA and in other relevant forums”. The UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots also recommended that “the UK Government should commit to participate in any and all international processes and fora to discuss and develop the regulation of AWS” in its written evidence. Over the year, and with further discussions in the CCW still stalled, the initiative for a UNGA resolution this autumn began to develop. When giving evidence to the Inquiry in June, Article 36’s Richard Moyes gave as his one recommendation to the UK government that “they join the UN General Assembly resolution in October on autonomous weapons.”
Questions the UK still needs to answer
We will be watching with interest whether the committee and Minister address this important point for international policy progress on autonomous weapons systems, and the UK government’s orientation to this, at the evidence session on Thursday.
Given the UK will be aware of this initiative, and seeks to be a leader in this area, any answer to the effect that the government is still making up its mind on whether to support work on a resolution in the UN General Assembly should not be seen as good enough when it comes to this clearly constructive step.
When the Inquiry makes its recommendations to the government in its report this autumn, we also hope that the committee will highlight the need for UK government participation and leadership in this area.
The UK government still has other important questions to answer – including giving more detail and clarification on where it sees the lines of acceptability to be when it comes to sensor-based weapons systems and human control (as we detail in our answer to question 5 in our evidence). On the subject of international policy discussions, however, the UK’s orientation to the initiative in the UN General Assembly is currently the most pressing.
Featured image: Stop Killer Robots campaign in London’s Parliament Square (© Stop Killer Robots)