Senior Partner at ABS & Co Explores Liability and Ethics of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems and AI at the Arms Control and Disarmament Seminar

Ahmer Bilal Soofi, a senior partner at ABS & Co, was invited as a guest speaker by the Arms Control and Disarmament Centre, in collaboration with the Sustainable Peace and Development Organization, to deliver a talk on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad on 9th May 2023. The event was graced by members of the diplomatic community, academia and experts from think tanks.

Mr. Soofi delivered a thought-provoking address during the seminar, shedding light on the intricate complexities surrounding Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). Mr. Soofi discussed the nuanced nature of LAWS, highlighting the ambiguities that arise when determining a state’s rightful response and what qualifies as an attack under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Moreover, he presented a series of well-thought-out proposals that encompassed the regulation of both the private sector and governmentto-government enterprises.

Mr. Soofi raised the question of liability in the context of private companies developing autonomous weapons that could result in harm or fatalities. The responsibility for such consequences remains unclear, whether it falls upon the programmer, the state, the manufacturer, or the license holder. This issue extends beyond criminal liability and encompasses civil responsibility. He stated that the nature of this liability needs to be further defined. Given that autonomous weapons are self-executing, determining responsibility for their actions becomes challenging, especially in civil terms. The question remains as to whether the patentee, inventor, licensee, programmer, or manufacturer should be held accountable.

In addition, he delved into the interpretation of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which addresses the right to self-defense. Exploring what qualifies as an attack, he highlighted the importance of immediate and collective action to safeguard territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Referencing the 1967 Arab-Israel Conflict, he exemplified the historical relevance of Article 51, which grants member states the right to defend themselves against armed aggression. The incident serves as a reminder that the interpretation and application of Article 51 continues to evolve, particularly in the face of emerging challenges like autonomous weapons. Understanding the parameters and implications of self-defense in the modern era necessitates ongoing discussions.

Furthermore, he examined the manufacturing and retention of autonomous weapons by various countries, whether friendly or enemy states. The act of manufacturing and retaining such weapons violates principles of international humanitarian law or jus in bello, which governs acceptable wartime conduct. Unlike human decision-makers, autonomous weapons lack the inherent ability to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants, raising concerns about their compliance with international humanitarian law.

Expressing the need for a comprehensive framework to regulate autonomous weapons, he proposed the establishment of a licensing regime and mutual information exchange to mitigate misinterpretation of the threat. Recognizing the time-consuming nature of developing such regulations, he highlighted the significance of Article 36 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions. This article requires states to review and evaluate the humanitarian implications of new weapons and methods of warfare, ensuring their compliance with international humanitarian law and prioritizing the protection of civilians and the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

Regarding the international ban on killer robots, he noted that 26 countries explicitly support such a ban, with over a hundred states open to the idea. In light of this, he suggested initiating a global document at venues such as the Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or involving independent experts housed at the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) in Rome. These institutions could contribute to the development of a draft convention that addresses the complex legal aspects of the ban on manufacturing, retention, and use of killer robots, encompassing both private and public international law considerations.

Mr. Soofi concluded that as the international community navigates the complex landscape of autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence, it is crucial to foster ongoing dialogue, cooperation, and regulatory frameworks that prioritize the humanitarian aspects and adhere to established principles of international law.

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