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The Compatibility of Autonomous Weapons with the Principle of Distinction in the Law of Armed Conflict

Lookup NU author(s): Elliot Winter



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Cambridge University Press, 2020.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


The law of armed conflict requires ‘distinction’ between civilians and combatants and provides that only the latter may be targeted. However, for proper implementation, distinction requires advanced observation and recognition abilities as well as the capacity to exercise judgement based on situational awareness. While the observation and recognition abilities of machines may now surpass those of humans, the capacity of machines to exercise judgement remains significantly more limited than our own. Consequently, this paper contends that the deployment of ‘autonomous weapons’ based on current levels of technological sophistication would be incompatible with distinction and that, as such, their use in conflict would be unlawful.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Winter E

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: International and Comparative Law Quarterly

Year: 2020

Volume: 69

Issue: 4

Pages: 845-876

Print publication date: 01/10/2020

Online publication date: 07/10/2020

Acceptance date: 02/04/2018

Date deposited: 27/08/2020

ISSN (print): 0020-5893

ISSN (electronic): 1471-6895

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


DOI: 10.1017/S0020589320000378


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