US autonomous naval vesselAbstract

Navies around the world are making big investments to develop autonomous devices capable of travelling the ocean with limited, or no, real-time human control. These devices – known as maritime autonomous surface ships or un-crewed autonomous vessels – pose challenges to current understandings of the law of the sea and the law of armed conflict. Some of these challenges are fundamental, such as how we might define these devices in international law. This talk will address two definitional challenges: whether an autonomous vessel can be a ‘warship’, and whether they can be ‘naval auxiliaries’. These terms have a long history, and analysing how the terms might apply to autonomous maritime devices sheds light on the future of the law of armed conflict at sea. This will be linked to the current debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems to show how the maritime domain is a useful place to examine the relationship between international law and military technology more generally.

About the Speakers

Professor Rob McLaughlin is Professor of Military Security Law and Director of the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at UNSW Canberra. Previously, he was on the faculty of the College of Law at the Australian National University, and served as the inaugural Head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Maritime Crime Program. Before becoming an academic, Rob served in the Royal Australian Navy for several decades as both a Seaman officer and a Legal officer. He served in surface units and submarines, and deployed to East Timor, Iraq, and on maritime border protection operations. As a lawyer, he served as Fleet Legal Officer, the Strategic Legal Adviser, Director of the Naval Legal Service, and Director of Operations and International Law in the Department of Defence. He holds degrees in history, law, and international relations, and earned his PhD at Cambridge. His research areas are law of the sea, maritime law enforcement, the law of armed conflict, and national security law.

Dr Simon McKenzie is a Research Fellow at the TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland. Simon's current research focuses on the legal challenges connected with the defence and security applications of science and technology, with a particular focus on the impact of autonomous systems. His broader research and teaching interests include the law of armed conflict, international criminal law, and domestic criminal law. Prior to joining the University of Queensland, Simon was a policy officer in the Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety. He has held teaching roles at the Melbourne Law School, and has worked as a researcher at the Supreme Court of Victoria and the International Criminal Court. Simon holds a combined arts and law degree from the University of Tasmania, and a PhD in international criminal law from the University of Melbourne.


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MBA Room 2 (G22)