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Toward a Ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons: Surmounting the Obstacles

By Wendell Wallach

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 60 No. 5, Pages 28-34
10.1145/2998579

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From April 11–15, 2016, at the United Nations Office at Geneva, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) conducted a third year of informal meetings to hear expert testimony regarding a preemptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). A total of 94 states attended the meeting, and at the end of the week they agreed by consensus to recommend the formation of an open-ended Group of Government Experts (GGE). A GGE is the next step in forging a concrete proposal upon which the member states could vote. By the end of 2016 a preemptive ban has been called for by 19 states. Furthermore, meaningful human control, a phrase first proposed by advocates for a ban, has been adopted by nearly all the states, although the phrase's meaning is contested. Thus a ban on LAWS would appear to have gained momentum. Even the large military powers, notably the U.S., have publicly stated that they will support a ban if that is the will of the member states. Behind the scenes, however, the principal powers express their serious disinclination to embrace a ban. Many of the smaller states will follow their lead. The hurdles in the way of a successful campaign to ban LAWS remain daunting, but are not insurmountable.

The debate to date has been characterized by a succession of arguments and counterarguments by proponents and opponents of a ban. This back and forth should not be interpreted as either a stalemate or a simple calculation as to whether the harms of LAWS can be offset by their benefits. For all states that are signatories to the laws of armed conflict,a any violation of the principles of international humanitarian law (IHL)b must trump utilitarian calculations. Therefore, those who believe the benefits of LAWS justify their use and therefore oppose a ban, are intent that LAWS do not become a special case within IHL. Demonstrating that LAWS pose unique challenges for IHL has been a core strategy for supporters of a ban.

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