Can 2023 break the deadlock on lethal autonomous weapons systems?

What happens when there are good proposals on the table and a desire for progress, but only ten days to negotiate an issue as complex as “lethal autonomous weapons systems”? 2023 could be a turning point.

By Giacomo Persi Paoli

Basic principles of storytelling teach us that every story needs a protagonist with a clear intention and a number of obstacles to face. If this is the story of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (GGE on LAWS), then both elements are clearly outlined. Since its inception 6 years ago, the GGE on LAWS has discussed emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapon systems, particularly as they relate to the context of the Convention that hosts the GGE on LAWS, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The purpose of this convention is to ban or restrict the use of specific types of weapons that are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately. It should be noted that since the start of the GGE on LAWS, states were not able to agree on a common definition of LAWS. That being said, a commonly used working definition characterises LAWS as those systems with the ability to select and engage targets without meaningful human control. While the essence of “meaningful human control” is also contested, what is not disputed is the recognition that unconstrained use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in some critical functions of weapon systems could potentially undermine the respect for core principles of international humanitarian law, such as distinction, proportionality or necessity.

"It is difficult to design rules for something that is constantly evolving. This is compounded by a second obstacle which is hard-coded in all multilateral processes that operate on the basis of consensus: the resistance to change and the challenges of re-opening discussions on previously agreed language or concepts, even if current knowledge suggests to do so."

As clear as the intention has been, the path of the GGE on LAWS faces no shortage of obstacles. The first and perhaps, most important one, as it impacts everything that follows, is related to the continuously evolving nature of both the technology itself and our understanding of it. It is difficult to design rules for something that is constantly evolving. This is compounded by a second obstacle which is hard-coded in all multilateral processes that operate on the basis of consensus: the resistance to change and the challenges of re-opening discussions on previously agreed language or concepts, even if current knowledge suggests to do so.

The third obstacle is that none of these processes happens in a vacuum and is impacted by the same geopolitical/global shocks as the world “outside of the UN”. November 2019 probably represents the apex of the success of the GGE on LAWS with the adoption of eleven guiding principles. There were also prospects of progress supported by a two-year mandate to bring to the CCW Review Conference in November 2021 a more concrete proposal for a normative and operational framework for LAWS. Just a few months after, and for the entire duration of this two-year mandate, the global pandemic severely challenged substantive negotiations. The result was an underwhelming report and a renewed, not particularly ambitious, mandate for 2022 to elaborate, by consensus, possible measures and other options related to the normative and operational framework on emerging technologies in the area of LAWS. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, the expectation of more substantive progress in 2022 dissolved as the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened just a few weeks before the first session of the GGE on LAWS and created a geopolitical context in which achieving consensus on anything meaningful was utopian.

So what is next, and why should we remain optimistic? Formally, the GGE on LAWS has been renewed for another year with the same mandate. This means that we can expect the discussions on LAWS to proceed in 2023 following the same blueprint as they did in 2022, hopefully advancing on substantive proposals.

However, there are reasons to believe in a more meaningful outcome. Measuring progress exclusively by the content of the reports formally adopted by the GGE on LAWS only tells half of the story. Looking at the reports adopted in recent years, it may be hard for some to notice any meaningful progress. However, if we look in greater detail at the richness of the discussions and the quality of the proposals that have been tabled relative to previous years, then we may find evidence of the opposite.

The substantive proposals that are currently on the table differ in approach, purpose, scope, and proposed outcome, but they are all there to indicate States’ willingness and readiness to advance the discussion. Substantive discussions on the proposals brought to light important areas of convergence that have developed over the years. These include, for example, the recognition that international humanitarian law fully applies. Another meaningful area of convergence highlights that characterisation should focus on the human element and its interface with machines, an aspect more relevant to the issues of accountability and responsibility. However, the same discussions highlighted that there are areas where strong divergences in views continue to exist and impact the GGE’s ability to make progress towards a concrete outcome: from the nature of the outcome itself (e.g. legally binding instrument, non-legally binding measures etc.) to the lack of common ground on definitions and characterisation of LAWS and what nature and extent of human judgement, control and involvement are necessary to ensure International Humanitarian Law (IHL) compliance, just to name a few.

The differences remain clear and significant, but States have built the will and appetite to achieve concrete progress towards developing a normative and operational framework for autonomous weapons. Particularly symbolic in this regard is the Joint Statement that was delivered by a diverse group of 70 States, including those with opposing views on the desired outcome of the process, at the 77Th session of the UN General Assembly. This is indicative of the willingness to engage and make progress. Whether in 2023, this commitment will be sufficient to overcome external factors that inevitably will influence the workings of the GGE, remains an open question. There is no doubt that 2023 will be a defining year for the GGE on LAWS. The pieces are in place to achieve meaningful progress. Should the GGE on LAWS fail to deliver, then the future of the Group will inevitably be put in question.

About the Author

Giacomo Persi Paoli is the Head of the Security and Technology Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). His expertise spans the science and technology domain with an emphasis on the implications of emerging technologies for security and defence. Before joining UNIDIR, Giacomo was Associate Director at RAND Europe and he served for 14 years as a warfare officer in the Italian Navy.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.