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Autonomous weapons: IPU adds parliamentary weight to pressure for regulation

Earlier this year, the IPU addressed the urgent issue of international regulation for autonomous weapon systems (AWS) and artificial intelligence (AI), which could have deadly implications for political stability and human rights. Indeed, these emerging technologies have already been used on battlefields around the world including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Gaza and Ukraine.

In some ways, AWS and AI could help to keep civilians safe and – by acting as early warning systems – help to protect the peace. But since they are able to select and attack targets independently of human control, they complicate legal accountability and increase the likelihood of war crimes.

AWS and AI also shift perceptions of risk and strategic power and in doing so they threaten to accelerate new arms races and lead to pre-emptive strikes. The possibility of proliferation and use by non-State actors is another major concern.

So, when hundreds of MPs gathered for the IPU’s 148th Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the role of parliaments in peace-building and multilateral relations, AWS and AI were also on the agenda. MPs from more than 140 countries approved a resolution: Addressing the social and humanitarian impact of autonomous weapon systems and artificial intelligence.

The resolution urges parliaments to:

Discuss the threats of AWS, working with a wide range of stakeholders such as the United Nations, defence industry, civil society, and academia; Ban the use of fully autonomous weapons that operate in contradiction of international humanitarian law; Regulate development, deployment, and use of other AWS, especially with respect to international law; Hold their governments to account on AWS and AI, including the related issues of data protection; mechanisms for investigation, prosecution, and punishment; proliferation; and the exchange of good practice; Push their governments to advance international regulation; Promote education and awareness, informing citizens about the ethical, legal, humanitarian, and security implications of AWS; and invites the IPU to keep up to date on the issue, including by organizing discussion at future Assemblies and developing a set of parliamentary good practices.

Despite opposition and reservations from some countries, the resolution showed that parliaments collectively view these new technologies as a major risk. The resolution requires parliaments to act and to urge their governments to take the appropriate action.

Many MPs have traditionally been reluctant to discuss matters of security, believing that such issues are the prerogative of the executive branch. Although they are responsible for scrutinizing government spending, including on the military, these MPs often struggle to make full use of their oversight, legislative, and budget setting functions.

International mobilization so far

The international community has been discussing these technologies for years, including their impacts on political stability and human rights. So far, however, no agreement has been reached.

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), for example, bans or restricts the use of specific weapons, which cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants, or which affect civilians indiscriminately. And since 2013, diplomats have been using this Convention as a framework for discussions of AWS and AI. The talks have failed to deliver a substantive outcome, however, at least partly because Member States have been unable to agree on definitions.

The main outcomes from multilateral discussions have been to raise awareness of this issue, building momentum towards an international agreement.

In October 2022, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 51/22, urging respect for international human rights law in the development and use of new military technologies.

In July 2023, the UN Secretary-General published his New Agenda for Peace, followed by a joint appeal in October 2023 together with the ICRC. Indeed, since 2018, he has consistently said that AWS are “politically unacceptable and morally repugnant”.

Most recently, in December 2023, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 78/241 noting the range of humanitarian, legal, security, technological, and ethical concerns that come with AWS and AI. The resolution welcomed the contributions of international and regional initiatives and conferences, as well as UN bodies, the ICRC, civil society, academia, and more.

The UN and others are calling for a legally binding instrument by 2026 to prohibit lethal AWS, defined as weapons systems which function without human control or oversight and which cannot be used in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Parliamentary mobilization

The IPU has added its voice – and those of parliaments around the world – to help build this momentum for international agreement. By approving the resolution, parliaments agree at least in principle to implement the actions listed.

Unilateral parliamentary action can help to establish norms and standards. Belgium’s 1995 ban on anti-personnel mines and 2006 ban on cluster munitions both helped to build momentum for wider global prohibitions.

But IPU officials are clear-eyed, that in this case progress on AWS and AI is more likely through international agreements that carry legal weight.

And enabling such international agreements is precisely the role of the IPU, which has a long-standing commitment to peace and security. For nearly 135 years, it has provided a forum for dialogue and diplomacy between politicians from around the world.

By adding these issues to its agenda, the IPU has opened a new forum for multilateral discussion and added parliamentary weight to the growing demand for regulation of AWS and AI at the international level.

IPU Secretariat, Geneva