Are lethal autonomous weapon systems legal?

I want to know whether this technology is illegal, or not - specifically in the UK, but globally as well.

I know the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons held a conference in December, regarding the legalities of this technology, but did not hear of anything being determined. I also think the US has some military law regarding "meaningful human control."

  • 1
    You might want to add a definition of "lethal autonomous weapon systems" or a link to a definition in your question. I say this because my first thought was that a pressure-activated mine (such as an anti-personnel mine) would be a lethal and autonomous weapon.
    – James
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:58
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    It's a broad term, encapsulating all weapons that actively engage in offensive combat, with humans - without the need for any authoritative confirmation.
    – Tobi
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 17:01
  • Such weapon systems might easily get in conflict with the general rule that surrender has to be accepted from the enemy. How can one surrender to such a system, especially if that system is not intelligent enough to detect that intention?
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 7:28

2 Answers 2


While your question is primarily directed towards the use of legal autonomous weapons systems by military forces, I will address one tangential point (I may provide a separate answer on the military issues later).

There is a long standing (i.e. many hundreds of years old) common law rule of premises liability in Britain, which has now been incorporated by law into a statute and is also the law in almost every other common law jurisdiction, that creates liability to a person injured by a private parties using lethal autonomous weapons systems (i.e. deadly traps).

  • So it would be treated like a normal murder - I'm not much of a lawyer...
    – Tobi
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:50
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    As part of a dissertation, I'm conducting some research on the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems. Would you be up for an short interview, in which we discussed this? It would be amazing to cite a lawyer, familiar in the field. I get this is probably the last place I should make such an enquiry.
    – Tobi
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:57
  • No. Murder is a crime that can cause you to go to prison when the government sues you. Premises liability means that the person hurt can sue the person who is legally responsible for money damages. And, I would be happy to do an interview with you for your dissertation. You could send an email to my username at this site, @hotmail.com to provide details. I do have trials and so on, so we'd need to set a time in advance.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 16:57
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    "Sure, let's meet at my place discuss my test of landmi... I mean my dissertation on autonomous weapon"
    – Three Diag
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 0:10

It depends

For example, the most ubiquitous "autonomous weapons system" is the anti-personal mine. These are illegal under the Ottawa Treaty which has been ratified by 40 nations including most of Europe, Africa, South & Central America, South-east Asia, Australia, Canada and Mexico so the use of anti-personnel mines by or against those nations constitutes a war crime.

Notably, the USA, Russia, China and India have not ratified the treaty so the use of such weapons by and against each other is not illegal.

  • Importantly, the requirement to have a special treaty for one specific type of weapon implies a widely held belief that there is no general rule.
    – MSalters
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 17:27

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