As a result of the committed work of the informal cross-party group of UK parliamentarians who are concerned about growing autonomy in weapons systems, the past two years has seen a huge increase in parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s position on autonomous weapons systems (AWS). Substantive engagement with the challenges posed by increasing autonomy in weapons systems has been brought to parliamentary debate. These developments will be crucial to influencing UK policy and improving the government’s position on this issue towards effective international regulation of autonomy in weapons systems.

The following detailed round-up picks out key findings and opportunities based on a raft of relevant parliamentary activities, including over 20 parliamentary questions, ten oral parliamentary interventions and three related events with the participation of parliamentarians from all major UK political parties.

The UK Stop Killer Robots campaign would like to thank all the parliamentarians for their work to drive growing interest in and attention to discussions around the implications of AWS in both houses of parliament.

Recent highlights in parliament

Upcoming activity

On your initiative, more will be taking place in the coming months including:

Our reaction to the most recent government answers

In response to the UK government’s release of its Defence AI Strategy and accompanying policy statement ‘Ambitious, Safe, Responsible’ (see UK Stop Killer Robots campaign’s reaction here), and following a meeting between some parliamentarians in this group, MoD officials and the Minister, nine Parliamentary Questions were tabled to seek official answers on some key concerns and unanswered issues around UK government policy on autonomous weapons. (The full questions and answers are available at: UIN HL1997, UIN HL1998, UIN HL2031, UIN HL2032, UIN HL2033, UIN HL2086, UIN HL2087, UIN HL2088, UIN HL2089).

In general, the key things we believe must be pursued with the UK government as they develop concrete guidance and mechanisms for oversight to implement their broad strategy and policy around AI and AWS are:

The campaign’s reaction to and analysis of the details of the government’s responses to the latest parliamentary questions is as follows:

Nevertheless, in answer to question UIN HL2033 tabled by the Lord Bishop of Oxford on whether the government would therefore support an international legal instrument containing prohibitions and regulations to achieve this goal (a policy approach around which convergence is developing internationally) the government re-stated its position that it did not, as IHL already provided a “framework for regulation.” Though IHL does indeed provide a starting point on many challenges relating to autonomy in weapons systems, it is clear from almost a decade of international debate that IHL is not sufficient for addressing all concerns – additional norms are needed. These ‘clear international norms’ desired by the government would be best achieved through a legal instrument, as the strongest tool available to the international community.

The UK at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW)

At the latest meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, held 25-29 July in Geneva, the UK delegation presented the Defence AI Strategy, and its position that systems “which operate without meaningful and context-appropriate human involvement throughout their lifecycle are unacceptable” and unlawful.

Along with a group of states including Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea and the US, the UK has proposed to the CCW this year that the GGE should focus on elaborating non-binding principles and best practices on autonomous weapons systems, noting that certain systems and uses would be already prohibited by law, and that positive obligations/regulation would be needed to mitigate risks and establish requirements around human control. In its national capacity, the UK delegation is recommending the development of a compendium of best practices, and has produced a list of guiding questions to commence the collective development of this.

Neither of these proposals has gained widespread support or consensus – in the context of a forum in which the adoption of any mandate beyond continued discussion is currently blocked (primarily by Russia), despite the support of over 80 states for the negotiation of a legally binding instrument.

Though the UK continues to oppose legal measures to regulate autonomous weapons systems, it nevertheless continues to contribute serious thinking and useful principles and approaches to discussion around what meaningful human control over weapons systems should involve.

Another step in the right direction was demonstrated by the UK government’s endorsement, along with 69 other states, of a Joint Statement on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems delivered on October 21, 2022, at the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. The statement emphasises the necessity for human beings to exert appropriate control, judgement and involvement in relation to the use of weapons systems in order to ensure any use is in compliance with International Law. It also recognises the increased convergence amongst states on key substantive issues, in particular, the approach based on the prohibition of autonomous weapon systems that cannot be used in compliance with IHL, and the regulation of other types of autonomous weapon systems.

The campaign welcomes the UK recognition that the human element must remain central in the use of force. However, given the prevailing vagueness in relation to the when and how such control must be exerted, we consider the UK government’’ current policy insufficient to maintain human dignity, control and civilian protection in the face of increasing autonomy in weapons systems.