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Locating LAWS: Lethal Autonomous Weapons, Epistemic Space and 'Meaningful Human' Control

Williams, John

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This paper analyzes the excessive epistemic narrowing of debate about Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), and specifically the concept of meaningful human control, which has emerged as central to regulatory debates in both the scholarly literature and in policy fora. Through reviewing work drawing on international relations, security studies, international law and ethics, and technology policy, including policy-oriented work, I argue all share a common epistemological position. This draws on a philosophical and analytical tradition that is Western and modernist, and places a ‘meaningful human’ at the center of debates over controlling LAWS who reflects archetypes associated with a Western, rational, white, male. This epistemological location, I argue, excludes epistemological perspectives relevant to communities who are both most likely to experience LAWS, because they live in areas where deployment is most likely, and have the greatest experience of the effects of key LAWS precursors, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Drawing on insights from decolonial approaches, I establish a research agenda that challenges this epistemological closure, and looks to relocate debates about meaningful human control over LAWS in research that makes space for far more diverse perspectives on a crucial issue that may shape humankind’s common future.


Williams, J. (2021). Locating LAWS: Lethal Autonomous Weapons, Epistemic Space and 'Meaningful Human' Control. Journal of Global Security Studies, 6(4),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 26, 2021
Online Publication Date Jun 23, 2021
Publication Date 2021-12
Deposit Date May 27, 2021
Publicly Available Date Mar 11, 2022
Journal Journal of Global Security Studies
Print ISSN 2057-3189
Electronic ISSN 2057-3170
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 6
Issue 4


Published Journal Article (342 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
© The Author(s) (2021). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.<br /> This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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