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From Historic Foundations to Today’s Debates on Artificial Intelligence

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 Al-Nashif 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 RightsB-Tech Project to 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 thought.

All such risks can be managed by identifying, mitigating and preventing harmful consequences.

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 technology itself.

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 Tech companies should learn to prioritize 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.”

75th anniversary

Meanwhile, day two included a special plenary session to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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.

Christy Hoffman, 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 of association.

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

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 Rosales, Executive Director of Guatemala’s GREPALMA initiative, described how they had used satellite technology to ensure smallholder farmers producing palm oil 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. UNDP’s Livio Sarandrea introduced 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 issue. This year, the Forum has moved to do what we can to act on this — another step forward.

  • 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.”