A Weapon Is No Subordinate. Autonomous Weapons and the Scope of Superior Responsibility

Event date
2 February 2023
Event time
12:45 - 14:00
Oxford week
HT 3
The Dorfman Centre, St Peter's College, and Online via Zoom

Dr Alessandra Spadaro

To join (whether in person or online), please complete the Registration Form by 5:30pm on Wednesday 1 February 2023. Please note that if you register for online attendance after this time, a Zoom link may not be sent to you.


Abstract: The doctrine of superior responsibility is often presented as a potential solution to the ‘responsibility gap’ when the employment of autonomous weapons results in violations of international humanitarian law. In my presentation, based on a forthcoming article, I will outline several challenges to the applicability of the doctrine of superior responsibility in these circumstances. In fact, superior responsibility is premised on the existence of a superior-subordinate relationship between individuals. The type of control required for this relationship to exist is different from the kind of control exercised by humans over weapons. Additionally, the doctrine requires the commission of an underlying crime in all its elements by a punishable subordinate. Nonetheless, superior responsibility remains a useful framework to demarcate the scope of the supervisory duties of the superior in relation to the prevention of war crimes. Understanding the limitations of this doctrine will be important in guiding the discussions concerning the level of human control that should be retained on autonomous weapons.


Speaker: Dr. Alessandra Spadaro is Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University, where she is also affiliated with the Montaigne Centre for Rule of Law and Administration of Justice. Dr. Spadaro’s research and publications are in the areas of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, international criminal law, and their intersection. She obtained her Ph.D. in international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva in 2021, with a thesis on detention by armed groups. At the Graduate Institute, she was affiliated with a research project on autonomous weapons and war crimes. She also served as a teaching assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and as a research assistant at the University of Geneva.



The Public International Law Discussion Group at the University of Oxford is a key focal point for PIL@Oxford and hosts regular speaker events. Topics involve contemporary and challenging issues in international law. Speakers include distinguished international law practitioners, academics, and legal advisers from around the world.

PIL Discussion Group Convenor: 
Ayako Hatano (ayako.hatano@law.ox.ac.uk)

The Discussion Group's meetings are part of the programme of the British Branch of the International Law Association and are supported by the Law Faculty and Oxford University Press.

The speaker will commence at 12:45pm UK Time and the speaker will present for around 30-40 minutes, with around 30 minutes for questions and discussion. The meeting should conclude by 2pm UK Time.

Practitioners, academics and students from within and outside the University of Oxford are all welcome.

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