Lethal Autonomous Robotics

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:18 pm on 17th June 2013.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 10:18 pm, 17th June 2013

I thank Nia Griffith, not only for bringing a very serious matter to the House and explaining it clearly, but for her immense courtesy this afternoon in sending us a copy of her speech, which enabled me to discuss it with officials and therefore answer the four key questions that she has raised.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the issue of lethal autonomous robotics before Parliament. It is clear from this debate and the one recently at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that this is an important subject which will inevitably become ever more so as technology develops. Let me clarify the scope of today’s debate. I agree with her that LARs are weapon systems which, once activated, can select and engage targets without any further human intervention. Her definition was correct and it is clearly one step on from drones, which have a human component—I will come back to discuss that in a moment.

Let me be very clear and back up the comments made by my noble Friend Lord Astor in the other place and quoted by the hon. Lady. He stated that

“the operation of weapons systems will always…be under human control”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 26 March 2013; Vol. 744, c. 960.]

and that

“no planned offensive systems are to have the capability to prosecute targets without involving a human”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 7 March 2013; Vol. 743, c. WA411.]

Let me reiterate that the Government of the United Kingdom do not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and have no intention of developing them. Such systems are not yet in existence and are not likely to be for many years, if at all. Although a limited number of defensive systems can currently operate in automatic mode, there is always a person involved in setting the parameters of any such mode. As a matter of policy, Her Majesty’s Government are clear that the operation of our weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of human oversight and authority and of accountability for weapons usage.

By putting that information on the record I hope to make it clear that we share the concern that the hon. Lady has brought before the House, which others share, about possible technological developments. My argument is that the UK believes that the basis of international law governing weapons systems would prevent the development of weapons in the way that she suggests, but whether or not that is the case, the UK’s position on wishing to develop such weapons is absolutely clear.

The United Kingdom always acts fully in accordance with international humanitarian law and international standards. We are committed to upholding the Geneva conventions and their additional protocols and encourage others to do the same. We always ensure that our military equipment is used appropriately and is subject to stringent rules of engagement. I shall discuss that in more detail later.

I thank the hon. Lady for her summary of the report presented by Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which was discussed in Geneva on 30 May. Let me summarise the report. Mr Heyns highlighted that the “possible” use of lethal autonomous robotics raises far-reaching concerns about the protection of life during war and peace. In his findings, he recommended that states establish national moratoriums on aspects of lethal autonomous robotics and called for the establishment of a high-level panel to produce a policy for the international community on the issue.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Government were willing to accept the four recommendations made in the report. I believe the point she particularly wanted to discuss was the question of why, as she said, the UK was the only state that did not support a moratorium. Let me make things a little more clear, if I may. The UK has unilaterally decided to put in place a restrictive policy whereby we have no plans at present to develop lethal autonomous robotics, but we do not intend to formalise that in a national moratorium. We believe that any system, regardless of its level of autonomy, should only ever be developed or used in accordance with international humanitarian law. We think the Geneva conventions and additional protocols provide a sufficiently robust framework to regulate the development and use of these weapon systems.

As I had the chance to read the hon. Lady’s speech before the debate, I noticed that she used the phrase “Furthermore, robots may never be able to meet the requirements of international humanitarian law”. She is absolutely correct; they will not. We cannot develop systems that would breach international humanitarian law, which is why we are not engaged in the development of such systems and why we believe that the existing systems of international law should prevent their development.