Politics and International Relations

Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) and International Norms

Dr Ingvild Bode

In August 2017, an open letter signed by 116 robotics researchers sounded a widely-reported warning call about a coming robotic arms race: ‘Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons [LAWS] will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend’. In the shadow of drone warfare, the autonomy of weapons systems is indeed accelerating largely outside of public attention.

Once activated, robotic systems can determine when and who to kill. While humans remain in manual control of drones, the development of more autonomous systems will see them move further and further away from immediate decision-making on killing. They may first only oversee actions undertaken by autonomous technologies and may later not be involved in decisions at all. Autonomous systems currently in late stages of development can typically be operated in different modes: Taranis, a UK-developed autonomous aircraft is thus flown by a remotely positioned operator but also has ‘an autonomous flight mode in which it is trusted to “think” and carry out missions of its own accord’. This looming absence of meaningful human decision-making in warfare makes scrutinising the challenges associated with lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) a matter of vital importance.

The aim of this project is to provide knowledge on the negative implications of LAWS for norms governing the use of force by comprehensively and critically monitoring their development. This objective is realized through authoring policy-relevant research outputs. Produced in cooperation with policymakers, the project team will disseminate these outputs to reach key stakeholders on LAWS.

Specifically, the project entails two objectives: 1. to map current practices surrounding developing, testing, and deploying LAWS and what understandings of “perceived appropriateness” they are associated with; and 2. to investigate the adverse effects these new understandings may have on normative use-of-force standards by hollowing out what is already an imperfect system of international law that has nevertheless contributed to peace and security in the UN Charter era.

So far, debate on LAWS concentrates on their legal-ethical implications, but it does not capture how LAWS may shape international norms through defining diverging standards of perceived “appropriateness” in practice. This process can undermine legal regulations by either “filling” them with diverging substance or by pushing forward novel “standards of appropriateness” that might become dominant as the “right” way of doing things.

At the heart of this project will be a project website compiling information on the two objectives listed above and thereby providing comprehensive and critical information to policy-makers to build informed opinion (and decisions) on LAWS.

Project website: Coming soon

Funding Body: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Amount awarded: £20,000

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Last Updated: 09/03/2018