Published 2 months ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Fears about the uncontrolled growth of artificial intelligence have exploded
into public debate this year. Day 2 of the UN Business and Human Rights Forum examined the challenges through a human-rights lens.
As Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada
said on day two of the UN Business and Human Rights
Forum, the explosive growth and reach of artificial intelligence
“brings into question even what it means to be human.”
Today, the Forum received around 30 recommendations from the Office of the
High Commissioner for Human Rights’ B-Tech
put human-rights perspective into debates about AI.
Previously, this debate has tended to be stuck in more vague and less stringent
concepts of ‘fairness,’ ‘responsibility’ or ‘ethics.’ Now, the project has
produced a taxonomy of specific harms potentially created by AI — for example,
in how AI involvement in grooming of persons for trafficking or exploitation can
violate the right to freedom from physical or psychological harm; how automated
decision-making which perpetuates discriminatory biases can violate the right to
equality; how systems which allow surveillance by repressive regimes can
constitute risk to privacy; and how unconscious perpetuation of biases and
attempts to misrepresent human interaction can violate the right to freedom of
All such risks can be managed by identifying, mitigating and preventing harmful
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To assist these activities, the session was told that the
OECD is likely to produce due-diligence guidance for AI
companies next year.
Alex Walden, Global Head of
Human Rights at Google, told the Forum how this human rights-based approach
was being introduced in the company’s internal processes and teams — through
offering appropriate training to the different functions, making guidance widely
available to apply existing human-rights standards, and in ensuring “speed and
scale” in undertaking human-rights assessments given the rapid advance of the
Session chair Mark Hodge, VP at business
and human rights NGO Shift Project, called on large
companies such as Google, OpenAI, Microsoft, Meta and Anthropic
to take the lead in undertaking human-rights due diligence; but he said as in
any other sector, a whole value chain exists — including investors — in which
all involved should act.
Hodge said human-rights practitioners had an obligation to get to know the
technology, just as much as Big
companies should learn to embrace human rights.
However, he concluded by saying that for AI — as in every other question at the
Forum — there is “so much value in driving the rights-based approach.”
Meanwhile, day two included a special plenary session to mark the 75th
anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human
Speakers repeatedly referred to how far countries in the world still have to go
to realize the ambitions and hopes of the original drafters. As focus on
business and human rights amongst companies moves to processes, tools and
methodologies, the proceedings were a timely reminder to all of us to reconnect
with the actual rights which we are seeking to protect and advance.
General-Secretary of the UNI Global Union, said that could start with each
of us reading or rereading the Declaration itself.
Pam Wood, Manager of Human
Rights and Responsible Supply Chains for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, called
on fellow companies to not be too shy to tie their actions to specific rights
within the Universal Declaration.
Indeed, there is a marked difference in mindset between drawing up a
human-rights policy, impact assessment or report; and seeking to consider how a
business can prevent deaths, discrimination, slavery or restrictions on freedom
Indigenous persons’ representative from Colombia, Darlis Rojas, also
addressed the mindset of those in business seeking to advance human rights.
“We are stigmatized and abused when we fight for our rights; what we need is
empathy from business. Walk with us.”
Other highlights of day two included:
A thoughtful opening session on how human rights can and do apply to small
and medium-sized enterprises. Rather than seeing the intuitive approach that
SMEs take as a barrier to due-diligence processes and data collection, the
debate asked how this could be harnessed to find creative ways to address
companies’ human-rights challenges? Karen
Director of Guatemala’s GREPALMA
initiative, described how they had used satellite technology to ensure
smallholder farmers producing palm
are 100 percent deforestation-free. Importantly, farmers and smallholders
co-created the tools together.
A session was conducted as part of the current public consultation on how to
integrate an environmental perspective in human-rights due diligence.
a proposed three point-action plan for companies: to integrate human rights
and environmental teams and systems within the business; to ensure
engagement with potentially affected stakeholders across both disciplines;
and ensuring continuous and longer time horizons to ensure environmental
impacts are fully included. Two years ago, I wrote about how the Forum was
finally accepting that the health of the environment is a human rights
This year, the Forum has moved to do what we can to act on this — another
The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable
caught today’s technological theme by flying a giant, besuited dummy on a
drone over the conference proceedings, to illustrate their concerns about
inappropriate corporate lobbying.
Finally, the admirable NGO Docip is providing
support in Geneva this week to representatives in the caucus of
indigenous peoples who are in attendance. One of their coordinators has the
entirely apt name, “Mr Angst.”
Published Nov 28, 2023 2pm EST / 11am PST / 7pm GMT / 8pm CET
Richard Howitt is a strategic adviser on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Business and Human Rights. He is also a Board member, lecturer at Audencia Business School and host of the Frank Bold ‘Frankly Speaking’ responsible business podcast. Richard was Member of the European Parliament responsible for the EU’s first rules on corporate sustainability reporting and subsequently Chief Executive Officer of the International Integrated Reporting Council.