On Thursday 7 September, the Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge MP, appeared before the Lords AI in Weapons Systems Committee-the only time a government representative will appear before the Committee.

One of the central issues the Committee is grappling with is the question of how society avoids an evolution in weapons technology which would see AI-enabled weapon systems take life or death decisions without human involvement.

The UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (UK CSKR) Coalition is concerned by the Minister’s manifest failure to engage with the most important question of the session: how can the UN General Assembly be harnessed to regulate these weapons? Noting that more than 90 countries now support action for a legally binding instrument,and that there will be a resolution proposed in the General Assembly on this subject this autumn, Lord Browne asked the Minister what plans for engagement the Government had in New York and whether the UK was collaborating to raise this issue in the General Assembly.

The Minister evaded the question, instead stating that “we [the UK Government] have found that the CCW is an effective forum in which to pursue engagement on these subjects.” The Minister’s reply suggests he is wholly out of touch with the status of the issue within the international community; discussions in the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are at a dead end due in part to Russia obstructing progress. The conversation has moved on from the CCW, and the absence of a UK plan to take the issue up in the General Assembly casts a large degree of doubt on the Minister’s initial claim: that “the UK is a leader” in the international arenas in which it is currently engaged. 

The Minister mentioned the importance of international law several times and claimed that the Government “support[s] the continuing use of international law as the primary regulatory vehicle for AI and autonomous weapons …”. However, he did not agree with some committee members that the rapid pace of AI development might require a new law to ensure meaningful human control is retained over the use of force. 

The need for the Government to demonstrate that it is taking public concern about AI seriously was also mentioned several times with the Second Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Paul Lincoln saying that “We recognise as a government there is public anxiety about artificial intelligence.” Lord Browne asked when the Government was going to return to publishing the outcome of Article 36 reviews “so that people can have trust and confidence in weapons systems.” There have been a number of opportunities where the Government could and should have involved civil society but did not. For example, in the development of its ethical AI principles and the Defence Command Paper Refresh (DCP23).

The UK CSKR Coalition welcomed promising developments in August 2023 with the UK convening the first-ever open debate on the opportunities and risks on of AI within the Security Council and giving a platform to the UN Secretary-General who used the occasion to call on states to conclude a legally binding treaty to regulate autonomy in weapons systems by 2026. However, the UK’s failure to even acknowledge the most promising route for momentum and progress – the General Assembly – shows that the UK’s leadership on the issue is falling short. 

Added to this failure was the Minister’s announcement during the session that “defence will not be included” in this autumn’s AI Safety Summit. As we wrote in our response to the announcement in June that the UK will be convening the first global summit on AI safety, ‘a summit silent on this issue would miss a crucial dimension and lack relevance.’ By not including defence in the AI Safety Summit, the Government is undermining its own commitment to driving forward progress on AI safety at a global level.

Committee member Lord Clement-Jones described the Government’s resistance  to an international framework as a strange position saying that “it does seem a bit strange that we’ve got if you like a legal framework but we don’t have an international ethical framework.” 

When questioned about how the UK might internationalise its ethics, the Minister appeared frustrated, stating that the UK was discussing the issue of AWS with international allies and partners, adding that the Government does not feel the need to engage on the issue beyond the Convention Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).  Unfortunately, this approach will ensure the UK remains on the fringes of the international policy space on this issue, given the shifting momentum to the General Assembly – where all states are represented.  In addition, if the UK focuses its engagement on an exclusive group of like-minded states it is unclear how the UK could ever achieve its hope of reaching broad-based consensus across the international community on this issue.

The UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots believes that the UK can – and should be – an important actor in breaking the current deadlock in international discussions on the regulation of AWS. It can do this by seizing the opportunity to take discussions to the UN General Assembly where all countries are represented, all countries have a vote, and ultimately where a step can be taken that is vitally needed: the triggering of negotiations to create a new treaty to regulate autonomy in weapon systems.