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The UK Is Angling for Global Oversight of AI Through the UN

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James Kariuki, deputy permanent representative of Britain to the United Nations, briefing reporters before the Security Council meeting on Syria, Feb. 13, 2023. In late June, through an interview with PassBlue, he described why his country is pinpointing the use of artificial intelligence, both boons and banes, through its monthly rotating presidency of the Council in July. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Britain is concentrating on the use and regulation of artificial intelligence as a top-priority debate while it leads the United Nations Security Council in July. The agenda reflects part of the country’s plans for building control in the evolving digital invention.

“What we want to do is have a serious discussion on the opportunities and risks of AI and on the way in which through inclusive international cooperation we can promote its safe and responsible use,” James Kariuki, the deputy permanent representative to the UN, told PassBlue in an interview on June 27.

The briefing, on July 18, will be chaired by James Cleverly, Britain’s foreign secretary. It precedes a global summit on AI safety to be held in London this year, though no date has been set. Barbara Woodward, Britain’s envoy to the UN, told reporters on July 3 that benefits of AI have “enormous potential,” such as tracking humanitarian aid data; the risks — especially on security — can be, for example, the unregulated use of nuclear weapons. AI experts are slated to give remarks to the Council, though no names have been announced yet.

The government’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology published a white paper in March on its plans for regulating AI. (The UN secretary-general has proposed that a UN entity be created to act as a watchdog on AI as well; he is scheduled to speak at the July 18 Council meeting.)

The paper outlined five principles: safety, security and robustness; transparency and explainability; fairness; accountability and governance; and contestability and redress. The government suggested that current regulations across sectors should be applied to how AI is used in a given industry. Britain wants to take a bespoke approach to ensuring responsible use of the tool.

In addition to its debate on AI, Britain said it was pushing its drive to help Ukraine define peace on its own terms. Cleverly will lead a July 17 ministerial briefing on Ukraine in the Council, too, with the possibility of Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba participating. The debate complements the Ukraine postwar recovery conference held in London in June and the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12.

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While Britain, the United States and their allies have backed a peace settlement that envisions Ukraine reclaiming all its territories, based on the country’s own 10-point peace plan, seven African leaders or their representatives traveled to Kyiv, the capital, on June 16 to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky about the possibility of Russia and Ukraine finding a middle ground that meant negotiating with President Vladimir Putin. But Zelensky roundly refused such talks with him right now.

The African delegation’s visit to help broker peace between Ukraine and Russia follows numerous others, including by Brazil, China and the Vatican. A Kyiv-led conference was held in Copenhagen in late June, with such participants as the G7 countries, Brazil, India, Türkiye and South Africa, to promote Ukraine’s peace plan.

“There is a global majority in favor of peace but not peace on Russia’s terms,” Kariuki said. He added that Ukraine has had its territories annexed, so it should not be the one making concessions.

“It’s very hard to come up with a peace plan,” Evelyn Leopold, a veteran journalist on the UN and international affairs, told PassBlue. “Ukraine wants Russia off its territory, and then they would negotiate. And Russia wants a peace plan, but that would mean staying in Ukraine.”

For a plan to materialize, one party would have to be weakened enough to accept the other’s conditions. Writing in The Guardian, Keir Giles, a researcher with the Chatham House think tank’s Russia and Eurasia program, said the West was giving Ukraine enough weapon systems to survive. That assessment points to a drawn-out war that the world does not need.

“We don’t want this to be an ongoing fight, we want it to be settled peacefully,” Kariuki told PassBlue, responding to Giles’s observation, which was extrapolated from a Chatham House report. “It would only be settled peacefully if Ukraine has the means to defend itself and if Russia recognizes international borders.” The Washington Post reported last week that in a secret visit by CIA Director William Burns to Kyiv, Ukrainian officials revealed a strategy to retake Russian-occupied territory in their counteroffensive and then pivot to cease-fire talks with Moscow by the end of the year.

At the UN, Kariuki said it was partly in respect of Ukraine’s borders that Russia is battling to redraw that prompted Britain to block the airing of Moscow’s informal meeting on children and armed conflict on April 5 in the UN Security Council. The session featured such panelists as Maria Lvova-Belova, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, for allegedly kidnapping Ukrainian children. She and other panelists spoke to the Council remotely. Britain and other countries sent lower-level diplomats to the meeting, some of whom walked out in protest when Lvova-Belova spoke.

“We put up with lots of things in briefings from Russia, but at some point, there is a limit and we made it clear that they had drawn the line,” Kariuki said of Britain’s move — with the US — to not allow the meeting to be webcast live via the UN channel. A request to live-stream an Arria session, as they are called, can be denied if a permanent Council member says no. Permanent members, including China, have been repeatedly flexing the rule this year. The Russian-led meeting was carried by a YouTube channel, so the public could watch it live, but it is not in UN archives.

The provisional program of work for the Security Council in July. The main focus: the use of artificial intelligence.

The Council’s program of work also includes a briefing on July 13 on the biannual update on the investigation of atrocity crimes committed in Darfur, Sudan. The court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, is expected to speak. Although Khartoum is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the court, the Council can vote to refer a case of atrocities to the tribunal. The Council did so on Darfur with Resolution 1593 in 2005. Since then, the ICC has been trying to prosecute people accused of war crimes committed by the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, albeit unsuccessfully.

At a briefing on Jan. 25, 2023, Khan told the Council that Sudan was not cooperating with the court.

The Sudanese government then was led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the two generals who upstaged a UN-backed transitional government last year. Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces had emerged from the Janjaweed and were heavily involved in the crimes Khan is investigating. On June 16, the Sudanese Army accused Dagalo’s forces, whom it has attempted unsuccessfully to absorb into the army, of killing the governor of West Darfur. Although the RSF denies the accusation, echoes of ethnic cleansing and attacking civilians are resurfacing among refugees fleeing Darfur into neighboring Chad. (More than 200,000 people have fled Sudan into Chad since the fighting erupted between the two generals in April.)

“Darfur touched me very much,” Leopold, who is also a former longtime Reuters reporter, said. “I was there in the days of the Janjaweed; I went with the Security Council. I just remember this huge refugee camp where they were crowded in a horrible way. They — the UN — have had all sorts of missions and peacekeepers, but it starts all over again.”

In PassBlue’s report on Switzerland’s Council presidency in May, we cited views that Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the US missed an opportunity to prevent a fallout of this magnitude in Sudan by failing to sanction Dagalo and Al-Burhan for usurping the transition government. PassBlue asked Kariuki about it. He said his country had been vocal since the coup, adding, “There were other members of the Council who were much less willing to call out the coup than we were.”

In addition this month, numerous Council resolutions will be adopted for renewal, including the Syria cross-border aid, Central African Republic sanctions and the UN mission in Haiti. The regular six-month session on nonproliferation, scheduled for July 6, will center on Iran’s nuclear weapons developments and its weapons transfers of drones to Russia to attack Ukraine.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council. Our episode this month features an interview with Kariuki and Evelyn Leopold. Listen to the full episode on UN-Scripted, a PassBlue podcast produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, on SoundCloud.

Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN: James Kariuki
Since: August 2021
Language: English
Education: Jesus College, Cambridge (1992)

His story, briefly: Ambassador Kariuki served as multilateral policy director at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) from 2018 to 2021, before becoming deputy permanent representative in 2021. In his previous role in the foreign office, he was responsible for creating policy on the UN and the multilateral system, human rights and sanctions. Before that, he was director of diplomacy of 20:20, a foreign ministry program, from 2016 to 2018. In addition, he headed policy planning and was deputy director for Europe in the foreign office and was deputy director of the National Economic Council Secretariat (Cabinet-level offices) during the 2008 financial crisis.

Kariuki was born to a Kenyan father and a British mother. He grew up in Britain and joined the foreign service in the mid-1990s. His career has taken him to Iraq, Venezuela, Washington and now New York City, where he lives with his family. In Baghdad, Kariuki worked for the UN, on loan, to the weapons inspection team. He describes himself as “a bit of a UN junkie,” having practiced multilateral diplomacy for about 25 years. Although his schedule is packed, Kariuki finds moments to play tennis at the courts in Central Park, he said. He spoke to PassBlue on June 27, 2023. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: The last time we spoke, 15 months ago, it was my first time co-hosting the PassBlue podcast episodes and writing the Security Council Presidency column. Britain focused on conflict-related sexual violence and tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in war zones as your signature event. What is the UK talking about this time around? We’ll be focusing on the greatest threats to global peace and security of today and tomorrow, and we will be using our leadership both to defend the principles of the UN Charter, in the context of the war in Ukraine, but also to rally international cooperation around future technologies. We’re in the 17th month of the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. And we will be using one of our main ministerial events to look at the situation in Ukraine. On July 18, the foreign secretary [James Cleverly] will chair a briefing on artificial intelligence, the first time the Council discusses AI formally on its agenda. We’ll invite Secretary-General [António Guterres] to brief, along with two AI experts.

PassBlue: Last year, when we spoke, you said that the UK would continue to make it difficult for Russia to use the Security Council to spread misinformation. You were also optimistic that isolating Russia would force President Putin to withdraw from Ukraine. But Russia is still very vocal at the UN and the Security Council, and it led the Council in April as rotating president. Plus the war in Ukraine is far from over. So do you think it’s time for Ukraine to show a willingness to negotiate a cease-fire? Ukraine wants peace. That’s very clear. But Ukraine is the one that’s been invaded and has had its territory illegally annexed by Russia. So I don’t think it’s for Ukraine to be the one that’s making concessions. And we’re very clear and Ukraine has been very clear that they want a peaceful outcome. We would like Russia to withdraw immediately. We’ve been saying that from the start. Ultimately, we can’t force Russia to do that. But I think we’ve seen on the battlefield that Russia is not succeeding. They are not taking territory, they’re now conceding territory. But we will also support any meaningful dialogue and process towards peace, including efforts involving countries, whether they’re from Europe or other regions. The peace has to respect the principles of the UN Charter, starting with territorial integrity and sovereignty.

PassBlue: On April 5, the UK blocked live UN webcasting of Russia’s Arria formula meeting — an informal gathering — on the illegal deportation of children from the territory it occupies in Ukraine. Do you not think that blocking the briefing or any briefing is a form of censorship? We support the Arria formula. We do Arria meetings ourselves. We support the meetings of others that can be a useful format to have a serious and meaningful debate. But what happened at that meeting is that Russia invited its child commissioner to brief the Council. She had been indicted by the ICC for her part in the abuse of the rights of children in armed conflict for deportation and linked to abduction. Frankly, that’s an abuse of the UN system. This is somebody who has been cited by a UN body for war crimes. [The ICC is not a UN body] So we put up with lots of things in briefings from Russia. But there’s a limit, and we were very clear that they had drawn the line.

Country’s Profile

Head of State: King Charles III
Prime Minister: Rishi Sunak
Foreign Affairs Minister: James Cleverly
Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy headed by the prime minister
Year Britain Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: A permanent member (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Population: 67 million
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 20200 (in metric tons): 4.6 (the US, in comparison:13). Source: World Bank

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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The UK Is Angling for Global Oversight of AI Through the UN
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