Adapting the Law of Armed Conflict to Autonomous Weapon Systems
90 International Law Studies 386-411 (September 2014) (Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, US Naval War College)
27 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2014 Last revised: 30 Oct 2014
Date Written: September 4, 2014
As increasingly automated – and in some cases fully autonomous – weapon systems enter the battlefield or become possible, it is important that international norms to regulate them head down a path that is coherent and practical. Contrary to the claims of some advocates, autonomous weapon systems are not inherently illegal or unethical. The technologies involved potentially hold promise for making armed conflict more discriminating and causing less harm on the battlefield. They do pose important challenges, however, with regard to law of armed conflict rules regulating the use of weapons. Those challenges demand international attention and special processes for adapting existing law to meet those challenges.
Rather than seeking to impose, up front, a new set of prohibitory rules or seeking to suspend development of autonomous weapon systems pending a comprehensive agreement on rules to govern them, international regulation of autonomous weapons systems should begin with the premise that the law of armed conflict provides an appropriate general framework. States should work to build on that framework through continually-improving interpretive standards and agreed-upon best practices. We propose a three-tiered approach to emerging automation and autonomous weapon technologies: (i) an international agreement that makes clear the applicability of baseline law of armed conflict rules and that codifies standards, practices, and interpretations that states have converged upon over a long period of actual development of systems, in tandem with discussion among states informally, and informed by sufficiently transparent and open sharing of relevant information; (ii) state-level development and inter-state discussion of weapon review practices, tailored to these specific weapons and their battlefield environments; and (iii) close coordination among weapons designers, developers, manufacturers, and military end-users of these systems, with lawyers responsible for legal weapons review, at each granular stage of design, development, and testing. The integration of these three levels can assist to appropriately and realistically shape advancing military technologies while improving adherence to core law of armed conflict principles.
Note: This September 4, 2014 version is the final published article; it replaces the working draft of August 6, 2014.
Keywords: Autonomous weapon systems, AWS, robotics, automation, weapons, law of armed conflict, Killer Robots, Human Rights Watch, CCW, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Article 36, legal weapons review, lethal autonomous weapon systems
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation