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Council of Europe adopts ‘first-ever’ international treaty on AI

The Council of Europe has adopted the first-ever international legally binding treaty on artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which aims to ensure human rights, the rule of law, and democratic legal standards.

The treaty, catchily titled “Council of Europe Framework Convention on artificial intelligence and human rights, democracy, and the rule of law,” was adopted on May 17 in Strasbourg during the annual meeting of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which brought together the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of the organization’s 46-member states.

“The Framework Convention on Artificial Intelligence is a first-of-its-kind, global treaty that will ensure that Artificial Intelligence upholds people’s rights,” Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović said.

“It is a response to the need for an international legal standard supported by states in different continents which share the same values to harness the benefits of Artificial intelligence, while mitigating the risks. With this new treaty, we aim to ensure a responsible use of AI that respects human rights, the rule of law and democracy.”

The treaty, which is also open to non-European countries, sets out a legal framework that covers the entire lifecycle of AI systems and addresses the risks they may pose while promoting responsible innovation.

“The convention adopts a risk-based approach to the design, development, use, and decommissioning of AI systems, which requires carefully considering any potential negative consequences of using AI systems,” according to a Council of Europe statement.

Founded in 1949 in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Council of Europe is an international organization with the goal of upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. Its framework convention on AI aims to complement existing international standards in these three foundational principles whilst filling in any legal gaps that may have formed as a result of rapid technological advances.

Specifically, provisions of the treaty include:

  • Establishing transparency and oversight requirements, such as identifying content generated by AI systems;
  • Requiring ‘parties’ (the States signed up to the convention) to adopt measures to identify, assess, prevent, and mitigate possible risks and assess the need for a moratorium, a ban, or other measures where AI risks may be incompatible with human rights standards;
  • Ensuring AI systems respect equality, including gender equality, the prohibition of discrimination, and privacy rights;
  • Ensuring accountability and responsibility for adverse impacts related to AI and legal remedies for victims of human rights violations related to the use of AI systems;
  • And requiring that each party to the treaty establishes an independent oversight mechanism to oversee compliance with the convention.

In terms of the potential risks AI poses to democracy, the treaty requires parties adopt measures to ensure that AI systems are not used to undermine democratic institutions and processes, including the principle of separation of powers, respect for judicial independence, and access to justice.

However, parties to the convention will not be required to apply the treaty’s provisions to activities related to national security and defense as long as these activities respect international law, democratic institutions, and processes.

The framework is the outcome of two years’ work by the Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAI), an intergovernmental body tasked with bringing together—to draft the treaty—representatives from the 46 Council of Europe member states (almost every country with territory in Europe), the European Union, and 11 non-member states (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, the Holy See, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Peru, the United States, and Uruguay), as well as representatives of the private sector, civil society and academia.

“With the formal adoption by the Committee of Ministers, the Framework Convention on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law negotiated by the CAI is now definitely the first binding international treaty on AI and waiting to be signed and ratified by countries,” Thomas Schneider, Chair of the CAI, said.

He went on to emphasize that “in contrast to hopes and fears to the contrary,” the negotiating parties never intended to create new substantive human rights, nor to undermine the scope and content of existing protections, rather:

“The intention of the parties negotiating the instrument has been to make sure that each party’s existing protection levels of human rights, democracy and rule of law would also apply to current and future challenges raised by AI.”

Now it has been adopted, the framework will be opened for signature in Vilnius, Lithuania, on September 5, during the conference of Ministers of Justice of the Council of Europe.

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