Signs of Progress Towards LAWS Regulation

Signs of Progress Towards LAWS Regulation
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Signs of Progress Towards LAWS Regulation

By Simon Cleobury, Head of Arms Control and Disarmament

Calls to regulate lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are getting louder.The joint appeal by the UN Secretary- General and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in October 2023 to conclude a  legally binding instrument by 2026 has been widely supported. In November 2023 the states parties to the Convention on Certain Convention Weapons (CCW) approved a new, more focused, three-year mandate for the group of governmental experts (GGE) on  lethal  autonomous  weapon  systems. However,  at the first meeting under the new mandate in March 2024 different interpretations of the mandate emerged.

The new mandate entrusts the GGE with the task to ‘further consider and formulate a set of elements of an instrument’as well as ‘other options related to the normative and operational framework on [LAWS]’. There were different views as to the issues the Group should focus on and the final objective it should pursue.However, the discussions were substantive thanks to a constructive approach of the delegations and an effective chairing. This gave the sense that the  GGE was finally getting down to business.

The Chair of the GGE organised the meeting around three topics: 1) characteristics and definitions, 2) application of international humanitarian law (IHL); and 3) risk mitigation and confidence building.Differences remain over what LAWS (or AWS as some prefer)actually are, how IHL applies, context of use, and what ‘autonomous’ means. In particular, commonly shared definitions are key  to  building  a normative  framework, let alone a legally binding instrument.

The different camps on display in previous meetings are still in evidence. An ultra-cautious camp doubts  whether new regulation is even needed. Some believe that more discussions are needed before  any  meaningful negotiations can start.A growing group,which includes EU and NATO states, supports a two-tier approach: banning systems that cannot comply with IHL and  regulating  those  that  can. Then, the Group of 15 - an informal forum- composed of countries from Latin America,Africa and Asia -continues to push for a comprehensive legally binding instrument.

The outcome of the discussions  under  this  new  mandate will not be known until the Group submits its report to the Seventh Review Conference of the CCW in 2026.The threeyear mandate provides a valuable opportunity to define normative elements to prohibit the use of weapons systems that do not comply with IHL, even if no agreement were reached  on  a legal instrument.

In a statement, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy(GCSP) argued that the Group needed to pay more attention to the risks posed by  autonomous  battlefield. the  increasingly Decision making, targeting decisions, and even target engagement is already highly algorithmically assisted, with varying levels of human oversight and involvement. Research into automation bias shows that the more autonomous  a system is, the more humans tend to defer to machine suggestions. Therefore, humans need to have the contextual understanding and cognitive and physical capacity to critically engage with the system’s  suggestions  or  actions  and  ensure an adequate human involvement.

The mounting pressure to regulate LAWS has certainly contributed to focusing minds within the GGE. We should welcome the promising signs emerging from discussions at the GGE. Reaching consensus at the end of the three-year mandate still looks challenging, but getting off to a constructive start gives some cause for optimism.

Simon Cleobury is Head of Arms Control and Disarmament. He is a former British Deputy Disarmament Ambassador (2017 – 2023), where he represented the UK at the Conference on Disarmament and other disarmament fora in Geneva. Prior to that he worked in the Security Council Team and then the Peacebuilding Team at the UK Mission to the UN in New York (2012 – 2016). Prior to his diplomatic career, he was a corporate lawyer with global law firm Baker McKenzie. Simon obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Modern History at University College London and a Master’s Degree in Historical Research from Oxford University.  He studied law at BPP Law School, London.

Disclaimer: This publication was originally published on the E-newsletter of the European Network of Independent Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Think Tanks. The views, information and opinions expressed in this publication are the author’s/authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP or the members of its Foundation Council. The GCSP is not responsible for the accuracy of the information.