UK House of Lords Debate on Drones and Autonomous Weapons

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There was a debate yesterday in the United Kingdom’s second legislative chamber – the House of Lords – on the UK’s use of drones (see here for debate and here for previous EJIL:Talk! post on UK’s use of drones). Not much was said with respect to drones themselves (i.e. remotely piloted aircraft) which was particularly new or noteworthy. The UK government simply asserted that there is no need for any new codes of conduct and that “[the UK’s] system is operated by highly trained, skilled and qualified RAF pilots in accordance with the principles of international humanitarian law.” [column 726]. What was perhaps more interesting was what was not said. First, although the government was specifically asked whether the UK uses the ICRC’s definition of combatants and civilians, the government did not respond to this question (see my previous post on this issue). Second, there was an interesting exchange with regard to autonomous weapons and the possibility of UK use of such weapons where some important matters where also left unspecified.

Earl Atlee, speaking for the government initially stated that:

“there are no future plans to replace military pilots with fully autonomous systems.  . . . The MoD has no intention of developing any weapons systems to be used without human involvement. Although the Royal Navy has defensive systems such as Phalanx that can be used in an automatic mode, to protect personnel and ships from enemy threats like missiles, a human operator oversees the entire engagement. Furthermore, all our remotely piloted aircraft systems used in Afghanistan to protect troops on the ground are controlled by highly trained military pilots. There are no plans to replace skilled military personnel with fully autonomous systems.”

Later in the debate, Lord Judd (who had initiated the debate in the House) asked the government to “clarify what is meant by “no intention” to deploy these vehicles other than with human involvement? What does human involvement amount to? How much automatic action in terms of analysis, identifying a target and deciding to hit it will be left to the device in future vehicles once they are launched?” Earl Atlee, simply stated:

“My Lords, the answer is currently none. It requires human involvement to launch the missile at the target. RPAS cannot currently engage a target without being commanded to do so by the pilot on the ground. “

In other words when asked to clarify the position with respect to the future, the government simply retreated to stating the current position. The government failed to offer clarity as to level of human involvement that will be retained with respect to targeting decisions. Sure, Earl Atlee spoke of no plans for “fully autonomous systems” but the question is what does that mean? How much human supervision will be retained?

Autonomous weapons are the next battleground with respect to the regulation of new weaponry. Readers may be aware that a group of NGO’s have launched a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.  Professor Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions recently presented a report to the UN on these weapons (see here). In one of his recommendations, he stated that:

“The Human Rights Council should call on all States to declare and implement national moratoria on at least the testing, production, assembly, transfer, acquisition, deployment and use of LARs [Lethal Autonomous Robotics] until such time as an internationally agreed upon framework on the future of LARs has been established”.

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