Africa’s participation in international processes related to AI
UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of AI
In November 2021, member states of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a Recommendation on the Ethics of AI outlining a series of values, principles, and actions to guide countries in the formulation of legislation, policies, and other instruments related to AI.1United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2021). Recommendation on the ethics of AI. As the recommendation was adopted in unanimity, all African member states are considered to have endorsed it. The 24-member expert group appointed by UNESCO’s Director-General to prepare the text of the recommendation included experts from six African countries: Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, and South Africa.
Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia were the African countries that contributed comments on the first draft of the recommendation.
Algeria’s contribution focused on AI and education, noting that while the education sector could benefit from AI, the role of teachers and human contact should not be underestimated. Morocco suggested that the recommendation should invite member states to use AI ‘to serve the interest of humans’, as well as to encourage the uptake of the technology by enterprises. Mali expressed support for all principles outlined in the draft recommendation and offered some additional observations. For instance, it called for the final text to strongly highlight that the developers and users of AI systems maintain full responsibility for the actions of AI systems, and to underscore the importance of encouraging and supporting the development of AI systems at the local level, so as to reflect local culture and traditions.
Nigeria called for the introduction of a recommendation for UNESCO to ‘support the domestication of the recommendations by developing legislations for ethical oversight and accountability as AI is applied to human endeavours’. Tunisia highlighted the importance of promoting human-centred, ethical, and trustworthy AI. It also called for international cooperation on establishing ‘recommendations and standards of good practice or even regulations in order to benefit globally from this new technology and avoid technological divides’.2United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2021). Compilation of comments received from member states on the first draft of the recommendation, Intergovernmental meeting of experts (category II) related to a draft recommendation of the ethics of artificial intelligence.
When the final text of the recommendation was put for debate at the Commission on Social and Human Sciences during the 41st Session of UNESCO’s General Conference, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mali, Djibouti, Morocco, Zambia, Cameroon, Namibia, Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea, and Burkina Faso were among the 68 member states that took the floor.
OECD and G20 AI Principles
Although the OECD Recommendation on AI3Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2019). Recommendation of the Council on Artificial Intelligence. is open for adherence to non-OECD countries, Egypt is the only African government that had adhered to it by October 2022. South Africa, as a G20 member, has endorsed the G20 AI Principles,4G20. (2019). G20 AI Principles. which are based on the OECD Recommendation.
UN discussions on lethal autonomous weapon systems
African diplomats are involved in discussions on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) at the level of the UN, and some countries have clear positions regarding this topic. Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Namibia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are among some 30 states that have called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons – including their development and production.5Congressional Research Service. (2021). International discussions concerning Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems.Human Rights Watch. (2020). Stopping killer robots. Country positions on banning fully autonomous weapons and retaining human control.
Several African countries have participated in the meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (GGE on LAWS) – a group created in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) with the goal of examining issues related to emerging technologies in the areas of LAWS in the context of the objectives and purposes of CCW.
In 2019, the GGE adopted a set of guiding principles (later endorsed by the CCW Meeting of the High Contracting Parties) outlining issues such as the applicability of international humanitarian law in the context of the potential development and use of LAWS and retaining human responsibility for decisions on the use of weapons systems.6Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. (2019). Report of the 2019 session. The following African countries participated in the work of the group throughout the year: Algeria, Djibouti, Morocco, South Africa, Uganda (high contracting parties to the CCW); Egypt and Sudan (signatory states to the CCW); and Mozambique (state not party to the CCW).
In 2020, Mauritius and South Africa were among the countries that submitted written contributions to feed into the group’s work. Mauritius expressed a preference for an instrument or treaty on LAWS which would, among others, oblige member states to (a) divulge their research programmes in the field of AI and robotics in weapons systems, (b) divulge the number of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) produced yearly, (c) ensure that AWS abide with humanitarian laws, and (d) inform before LAWS are used.
South Africa’s contribution highlighted the country’s view that the 2019 principles were developed solely to guide the work of the GGE and not for operationalising at the national level. The country also noted that both the design and use of LAWS need to be taken into account when considering a ban or restriction on the production and use of such systems.7Group of Governmental Experts on Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. (2021). Chairperson’s Summary.
In 2021, the following African countries participated in the GGE work: Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. In 2022, the list of participating countries included Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Tunisia. Nigeria joined several other countries in submitting a contribution to GGE 2022 which suggested, among other things, that the next GGE be given a mandate to initiate open-ended negotiations on a legally binding instrument on autonomous weapon systems.8Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, State of Palestine and Uruguay. (2022). Proposal: Roadmap Towards New Protocol on Autonomous Weapons Systems.
Over the years, African countries have also joined others in the Non-Aligned Movement in the issuance of working papers and other contributions to GGE work. Their 2021 statements, for instance, underscore the ‘urgent need to pursue a legally binding instrument under the Convention that will contain prohibitions and regulations for addressing the humanitarian and international security challenges’ posed by LAWS. They also called for a new mandate for the GGE, one that would focus on developing a legally binding instrument to cover emerging technologies in the area of LAWS.9Non-Aligned Movement. (2021). Statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Other States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) by the Delegation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Second session of the 2021 CCW Group of Governmental Experts on emerging technologies in the area of LAWS.Non-Aligned Movement. (2021). Statement on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Other States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) by the Delegation of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United Nations Office in Geneva, First session of the 2021 CCW Group of Governmental Experts on emerging technologies in the area of LAWS.