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British prototype of a military drone surrounded by munitions in a warehouse – an example of a precursor to an autonomous weapons system.
Major technological advances, particularly in artificial intelligence, have led to increasingly autonomous weapons systems. (© Keystone)

Switzerland has committed itself to complying with IHL, which limits or prohibits the use of certain types of conventional weapons. It strives to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of existing standards against the backdrop of technological developments.

Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) is a cornerstone of conventional arms control and IHL. Its goal is to balance military and humanitarian interests at all times. This gives it broad international support with all of the major military powers party to the treaty. Revisions to the CCW, which take account of various aspects of the rapid development of weapons technology and methods of warfare, are set out in a number of additional protocols.

 

Protocol I

Prohibition of weapons the primary effect of which is to injure the human body by fragments that escape detection by X-rays.

CCW Protocol I, UNOG

Protocol II

Prohibitions and restrictions on the use of landmines, booby-traps, mines without self-deactivating mechanisms, mines that cannot be located, triggers based on electromagnetic signals from metal detectors, and the installation of mines in certain situations.

CCW Protocol II, UNOG

Protocol III

Prohibition of weapons or munitions designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through flames, heat, or combination thereof.

CCW Protocol III, UNOG

Protocol IV

Prohibition of laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness.

CCW Protocol IV, UNOG

Protocol V

Post-conflict rehabilitation and humanitarian demining in relation to explosive remnants of war.

CCW Protocol V, UNOG

Restricting the use of anti-vehicle mines is currently under discussion, with Switzerland supporting negotiations for an additional protocol in this regard. These types of conventional weaponry have grave humanitarian consequences, mainly for civilians. As part of its humanitarian policy, Switzerland is also engaged in efforts to regulate small arms and light weapons as well as mines and cluster munitions.  

Autonomous weapons systems

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is resulting in weapons systems that have increasingly autonomous capabilities. This has military advantages, but should also improve compliance with international law. However, a number of (international) legal, political and ethical issues in this context are still pending.

For Switzerland, compliance with international (humanitarian) law is the key starting point for evaluating AWS. In particular need of clarification at global level is the issue of human control and what is necessary both in terms of type and quality. Autonomy must not be unlimited.

Switzerland's contributions

What kind and degree of human control over AWS is necessary in legal and ethical terms? The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are using contributions from Switzerland to address this issue.

  • Switzerland has issued a widely read working paper placing compliance with IHL at the heart of the current debate.
  • It has also submitted contributions to the UN Group of Governmental Experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) setting out its position on compliance with international law and the need to ensure human control.
  •  Switzerland is also supporting the development of standardised methodology and test protocols to check whether weapons systems conform to international law.

Swiss working paper on LAWS, UN Geneva

Limits on Autonomy in Weapon Systems: Identifying Practical Elements of Human Control, SIPRI

It is also continuing efforts to clarify this need for regulation in the CCW.

Switzerland is calling for the prohibition under the CCW of AWS:

  • the effects of which cannot be reasonably predicted,
  • the impact of which cannot be limited in accordance with IHL,
  • which cannot otherwise be used in accordance with IHL,
  • the repercussions of which cannot be attributed to a responsible commander. 

Last update 11.03.2022