Accountability and Control Over Autonomous Weapon Systems: A Framework for Comprehensive Human Oversight

Ilse Verdiesen*, Filippo Santoni de Sio, Virginia Dignum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
86 Downloads (Pure)


Accountability and responsibility are key concepts in the academic and societal debate on Autonomous Weapon Systems, but these notions are often used as high-level overarching constructs and are not operationalised to be useful in practice. “Meaningful Human Control” is often mentioned as a requirement for the deployment of Autonomous Weapon Systems, but a common definition of what this notion means in practice, and a clear understanding of its relation with responsibility and accountability is also lacking. In this paper, we present a definition of these concepts and describe the relations between accountability, responsibility, control and oversight in order to show how these notions are distinct but also connected. We focus on accountability as a particular form of responsibility—the obligation to explain one’s action to a forum—and we present three ways in which the introduction of Autonomous Weapon Systems may create “accountability gaps”. We propose a Framework for Comprehensive Human Oversight based on an engineering, socio-technical and governance perspective on control. Our main claim is that combining the control mechanisms at technical, socio-technical and governance levels will lead to comprehensive human oversight over Autonomous Weapon Systems which may ensure solid controllability and accountability for the behaviour of Autonomous Weapon Systems. Finally, we give an overview of the military control instruments that are currently used in the Netherlands and show the applicability of the comprehensive human oversight Framework to Autonomous Weapon Systems. Our analysis reveals two main gaps in the current control mechanisms as applied to Autonomous Weapon Systems. We have identified three first options as future work for the design of a control mechanism, one in the technological layer, one in the socio-technical layer and one the governance layer, in order to achieve comprehensive human oversight and ensure accountability over Autonomous Weapon Systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-163
Number of pages27
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Accountability
  • Accountability gap
  • Autonomous Weapon Systems
  • Comprehensive human oversight framework
  • Human oversight
  • Meaningful human control
  • Responsibility


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