A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) outlines challenges related to the legal review of weapons that contain autonomous features, and argues for greater cooperation and information-sharing between states. The report, to be launched tomorrow at the United Nations office in Geneva, aims to feed into ongoing discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
Informal talks on LAWS have taken place within the framework of the CCW for the past two years. This report, launched on the day states parties to the CCW are to decide whether they are ready to engage in more formal discussions on this topic, reiterates the importance of conducting weapon reviews, and also identifies the current limitations of such mechanisms when it comes to ensuring that weapons with autonomous features are acquired and used in a way that is compatible with the requirements of international law.
Weapon reviews: a vital step to ensure compliance with international law
Article 36 of Additional Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Conventions imposes an obligation on states to conduct a process, often referred to as a ‘weapon review’, to assess the lawfulness of the procurement of all new weapons. LAWS, like any other weapon, should go through such a process. Weapon reviews are therefore crucial to ensuring that autonomous weapon systems are developed, produced, fielded and used in compliance with international law.
‘The problem is that only a very limited number of states—fewer than 20—are known to have a formal weapon review mechanism in place’, says Dr Vincent Boulanin, a researcher at SIPRI, who produced the report. ‘This undermines the ability of the international community to control the weaponization of increasingly autonomous technologies.’
Technical challenges posed by weapon reviews
The report also finds that reviewing the lawfulness of autonomous weapons can prove to be a significant technical challenge that necessitates substantial technical expertise and financial resources.
'Predicting the compliance of autonomous systems with international law requires complex procedures capable not only of assessing how a weapon will perform, but also of evaluating the potential risks associated with an unintended loss of control due to systems failure, a cyber-attack or an unforeseen reaction by the system’, says Boulanin. ‘Moreover, as it stands, a reliable method for testing and evaluating the performance of, and risks posed by, the most complex autonomous systems is still to be found.’
‘This technical challenge is all the more problematic as states are unequally equipped to deal with it’, explains Boulanin. ‘Some might lack the practical experience, the technical expertise or financial resources to implement adequate technical evaluations to support the legal review process.’
Information-sharing initiatives should be encouraged
The report includes a series of practical recommendations for the legal review of weapons that contain automated or autonomous features. It also makes clear that it is essential to create the conditions necessary for more widespread implementation of weapon reviews. According to the report, information-sharing initiatives are key to this and should be supported within the framework of the CCW.
‘Increased transparency on weapon review procedures could become a virtuous circle in many regards’, says Boulanin. ‘It would allow states to demonstrably prove their commitment to legal compliance and would also be of assistance to states that are seeking to set up or improve their weapon review mechanisms. In addition, it could contribute to the development of points of guidance for the implementation of weapon reviews, which would strengthen international confidence in such mechanisms.’
‘SIPRI is committed to supporting greater cooperation and transparency in the area of weapon reviews and, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross, is always willing to help states to meet these goals,’ concludes Boulanin.
The report presents the author’s key takeaways from an expert seminar convened by SIPRI in Stockholm on 29–30 September 2015. The seminar and the research on the issue were supported by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.