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Human Rights in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Shaping Our Digital Future

19/01/2021 - 13:25
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Recent developments at the Council of Europe’s Ad hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence could prove to be a landmark moment for human rights in the digital age. We take a look at what this means exactly and at what both the Council of Europe and the European Union are doing to further protections in this field.


The rapid evolution of digital technology and the emergence of artificial intelligence has made indelible changes to all of lives. Whilst these developments bring many opportunities, we must recognise our new responsibilities, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence’s influence on human rights. Both the EU and Council of Europe recognise the intrinsic links between the development of artificial intelligence and the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, both organisations are determined to work together as standard setters in this field.

The EU attaches a great deal of importance to ensuring the respect of human rights in this area and has included it in its Priorities for Cooperation with the Council of Europe 2020-2022. More specifically, we are eager to identify any opportunities arising from artificial intelligence and to assess the need for further measures to ensure that their development, design and application is human rights compliant. We hope to do so in line with the European Commission White Paper on Artificial Intelligence as well as the Digital Services Act. A legislative proposal on artificial intelligence in the EU is also expected in the first quarter of this year, Whilst these documents sketch a roadmap for EU standard setting in this field, we envisage our work as complementary and in conjunction with the Council of Europe’s respective work. The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 commits the EU to support the development of all relevant frameworks in this area.

In September 2019, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe mandated the establishment of the Ad hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI). Its two-year mandate is specifically geared towards assessing the feasibility of establishing a legal framework for the development, design and application of artificial intelligence, based on the Council of Europe’s standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Just one year since its inception, the CAHAI has made significant progress. During its 3rd plenary meeting from 15 to 17 December 2020, CAHAI members presented the key values, rights and principles needed for a legal framework on artificial intelligence as well as its possible options (such as modernising existing instruments, adopting a new legal instrument or non-binding instruments) and compliance mechanisms. The EU actively participated in the meeting. While the unanimously adopted feasibility study is not binding, it does pave the way for the CAHAI’s adjoining work. The next plenary meeting will take place in February 2021, where concrete proposals on how to proceed with consultations will be discussed with a view of establishing a multilateral, legally binding framework on the subject. In the meantime, the feasibility study will be submitted to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Should such a multilateral treaty on artificial intelligence materialise from said feasibility study, it would be no mean feat. Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, in dialogue with Minister’s Deputies last week, described the potential treaty as a “milestone” moment for the Council of Europe, which would allow it to play a “pioneering role in standard setting for human rights in the field of artificial intelligence”. The EU too is eager to see a European regulatory framework in place for the protection of human rights when it comes to the development and use of artificial intelligence and thus stands by the Council of Europe at this historic moment.

The past years of work on this topic by both the EU and the Council of Europe are coming to fruition under the auspices of a German Presidency of the Committee of the Ministers of the Council of Europe. Germany too attaches great importance to the regulation of artificial intelligence in respect of human rights. Developing standards in this field is one of the priorities of the German Presidency. In light of the developments unfolding, and with a view to fostering furthering progress, the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Justice and for Consumer Protection, supported by the Council of Europe, have organised a high-level virtual conference on artificial intelligence and human rights. Scheduled to take place live from Berlin on 20 January, it will address the recent developments and discuss how progress can be made on creating a legally binding treaty. Speakers and panellists include, among others: Heiko Maas, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs; Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights; Salla Saastamoinen, Acting Director-General of the Justice and Consumers directorate-general at the European Commission and Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

With such a landmark achievement close to hand, it is important not to lose sight of the purpose of our endeavours. Recalling the words of Michael O’Flaherty: “Artificial intelligence is here. It is not going away. It can be a force for good, but it needs to be watched so carefully in terms of respect for our human fundamental rights”.

The Germany Presidency’s high-level conference is set to take place on Wednesday, 20 January from 1.00 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. (CET) and is open to the public via livestream. Full details of the upcoming high-level conference are available here.