Council of Europe adopts international treaty on AI

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Saturday, 18th May 2024.

Europe’s top human rights organisation adopted on Friday the first-ever legally-binding international treaty governing the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Experts have called on international organisations and governments to mitigate risks from AI technology, which is expected to transform nearly every aspect of human life in the coming years.

“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 Council of Europe said in a statement. The text was adopted at the annual ministerial meeting of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which brings together the foreign ministers of the 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 Pejcinovic said in a statement. “With this new treaty, we aim to ensure a responsible use of AI that respects human rights, the rule of law and democracy.”

The convention is the result of two years of work by an inter-governmental body, which brought together the Council’s 46 member states, the European Union and 11 non-member states including the United States and the Vatican, as well as representatives of civil society and academia. Among other provisions, the treaty requires parties to ensure that AI systems are not used to undermine democratic institutions and processes, the Council of Europe said. “Transparency and oversight requirements” would include “identifying content generated by AI systems” to users, it added.

The framework convention will be opened for signature in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, at a conference of justice ministers in September. In March, the European Parliament adopted the world’s most far-reaching rules to govern artificial intelligence, including powerful systems like OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Senior EU officials have said the rules, first proposed in 2021, will protect citizens from the risks of a technology developing at breakneck speed, while also fostering innovation on the continent.

‘Putin is preparing a long war against the West’

The German newspaper Die Welt has just revealed the existence of a 17-page peace agreement that could have ended the war in Ukraine just weeks after Russia invaded. Negotiators from both sides had worked hard on it between February and April 2022, and the original version of this special document has now fallen into the hands of German media. “In March 2022, only a few conditions were still missing from the resolution of the conflict, which was to be ‘negotiated by Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky at a summit meeting – which never took place,’ the Toulouse newspaper La Dépêche reported.

On March 29, 2022, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin announced the withdrawal of the Russian army from the Kyiv region. Initial negotiations in Istanbul took shape and a peace agreement was being worked on.

Die Welt reports on the conditions Moscow then imposed on Kyiv: the cancellation of all military alliances, including NATO membership, the adoption of permanent neutrality, “partial demilitarisation, the reduction of Kyiv’s army to 85,000 soldiers instead of one million, the retention of Russian troops in Crimea, which has been annexed since 2014…”

What could Ukraine expect in return? Its right to self-defence. “In the event of an armed attack against Ukraine, the guarantor states would have committed to assist Kyiv in exercising its right to self-defence, as guaranteed by the United Nations Charter, within a maximum of three days,” Le Figaro said.

Two years after the invasion of Ukraine began, the failure of the agreement has had a heavy impact. “It was the best agreement we could have had,” says (and regrets) one of the Ukrainian negotiators.

And while Russian forces continue their attacks in Kharkiv and Kyiv is still waiting for the rest of the promised Western aid and weapons, Putin appointed economist Andrei Beloousov to the Defence Ministry – a choice that, according to the Ukrainian Security Council, “means that the Kremlin’s master is ‘planning a war for the long term’ – a war not only against Ukraine, but also against the West as a whole, a war against NATO.”

125 Ukrainian soldiers killed in Donbass in 24 hours

Soldiers of the Eastern tactical group of the Russian Armed Forces have killed 125 Ukrainian fighters in the last 24 hours in Donbass, according to a Tass report which quotes statements of the group’s spokesperson Alexander Gordeyev who said, “During active actions, the military improved their positions along the front line,” adding, “Airstrikes, artillery fire, heavy flamethrower systems hit the positions and equipment of the 128th Ukrainian Territorial Defence Brigade near Makarovka. 125 enemy military personnel, infantry fighting vehicles, one howitzer, one rocket launcher, five fixed-wing drones and two ammunition depots were destroyed,” he said.

EU bans four media outlets for peddling Russian propaganda

The European Union has announced a ban on four media outlets accused of spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda and “destabilising” Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. The four blacklisted outlets – Voice of Europe, RIA Novosti, Izvestia and Rossiyskaya Gazeta – are “under the permanent direct or indirect control” of Russia and have been “instrumental” in fostering support for its illegal invasion of Ukraine, the European Council said in a statement on Friday. “The Russian Federation has engaged in a systematic, international campaign of media and information manipulation to justify and support its full-scale aggression against Ukraine, and to enhance its strategy of destabilisation of its neighbouring countries, and of the EU and its member states.”

The decision was anticipated by the bloc’s commissioner for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, on Wednesday when EU ambassadors greenlighted the move despite Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warning that Moscow would retaliate against Western correspondents in Moscow. Jourová also vowed to ban Russian funding of media outlets, NGOs and political parties in the EU.

It comes just three weeks before some 370 million voters are summoned to the polls in European elections, a vote feared to be vulnerable to Russian-backed disinformation campaigns. The bloc is on high alert for online Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining the integrity of the vote, with officials concerned the EU is deeply unprepared for new forms of foreign interference.

13 countries urge Israeli restraint over Rafah

Thirteen Western countries, including many traditionally supportive of Israel, appealed to it on Friday not to launch a large-scale offensive on Rafah. “We reiterate our opposition to a full-scale military operation in Rafah that would have catastrophic consequences on the civilian population,” read the appeal, sent by the countries’ foreign ministers to their Israeli counterpart Israel Katz.

The signatories were Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and EU member states Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. The ministers welcomed recent measures adopted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet to improve the flow of international aid into Gaza, but called for “further steps”. “We urge the Government of Israel to let the humanitarian aid enter into the Gaza strip through all relevant crossing points, including the one in Rafah,” they said.

They called on Israel to take “concrete action for the protection of civilians, international and local humanitarian aid workers and journalists”. The appeal also called for “a sustainable ceasefire”. The ministers urged Israel to “open all possible overland supply routes into Gaza” for aid, to “resume electricity, water and telecommunication services”, and boost significantly “the supply of critically needed goods… particularly medical supplies”.

Finally, they called on Israel to “facilitate further evacuations by issuing exit permits for all our citizens, eligible persons, and Palestinians admitted to relocate for humanitarian or medical reasons abroad”. Eight months after the start of the war, Israel is vowing to intensify its ground offensive in Rafah despite international concerns for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians in the southern city. The Israeli siege of Gaza has brought dire shortages of food as well as safe water, medicines and fuel for its 2.4 million people. The arrival of occasional aid convoys has slowed to a trickle since Israeli forces took control last week of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing.

The war broke out after the October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures. Out of 252 people taken hostage that day, 128 are still being held inside Gaza, including 38 who the army says are dead. Israel vowed in response to crush Hamas and launched a military offensive on Gaza, where at least 35,303 people have been killed since the war erupted, according to data provided by the health ministry of Hamas-run territory.

IDF finds 3 hostages’ bodies

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said Friday its troops in Gaza found the bodies of three Israeli hostages killed by Hamas during its October 7 attack, including German-Israeli Shani Louk. All three were killed by Hamas while fleeing the Nova music festival, an outdoor dance party near the Gaza border, where militants killed hundreds of people, military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a news conference.

Israel responds to Rafah genocide charges at ICJ

Israel has again contested accusations of genocide brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by South Africa after Israeli forces launched a military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. South Africa urged the UN top court on Thursday to order an end to the operations and for Israel to withdraw its forces. Israel responded to the many allegations that include mass graves, torture and the deliberate blocking of humanitarian aid. “Israel is acutely aware of the large number of civilians concentrated in Rafah. It is also acutely aware of Hamas efforts to use these civilians as a shield,” Israeli Justice Ministry official Gilad Noam said. Noam said there had been no “large-scale” assault on Rafah but “specific and localized operations prefaced with evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities”. This is the third hearing on the war between Israel and the Hamas militant Islamist group since South Africa filed the first proceedings in December.

Slovakia’s Fico in ‘serious’ state

Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico had a second operation on Friday, two days after being shot multiple times in what his office described as an assassination attempt. “He had an almost two-hour-long operation” on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters outside the hospital in Banska Bystrica where Fico had surgery. “His state is still very serious. I think it would take a couple of days to see the course of the development of his state,” Kalinak added. Kalinak, who is also the defense minister, is standing in for Fico.

US alert amid threat of violence against LGBTQ+ community

The US State Department on Friday issued a worldwide caution security alert, saying it is aware of increased potential for foreign terrorist organisation-inspired violence against LGBTQ+ people and events. “Due to the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against US citizens and interests, the Department of State advises US citizens overseas to exercise increased caution,” the department said in a statement. The alert comes two weeks before the start of LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the United States.

Meanwhile, A declatation for the promotion of European politics in favour of the LGBT+ community was presented by the Belgian presidency of the presidential election but which has not been signed by nine of the 27 EU member states. These are Italy, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Republic of China and Poland.

Sunak and his wife’s wealth grew by more than £120m last year

The personal fortune of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty grew by more than £120 million over the past year. The latest annual Sunday Times Rich List revealed their wealth grew substantially despite the wider UK billionaire boom coming ‘to an end’ in the face of tough economic conditions. Mr Sunak and Ms Murty’s wealth was £651million in the latest list, soaring from £529million in 2023. The rise was linked to Ms Murty’s small stake in Infosys, the $70billion Indian IT giant co-founded by her billionaire father. Her shares grew in value by £108.8million to nearly £590million for the year.

King Charles’ personal wealth jumps by £10m to £610m

King Charles’ personal wealth has jumped by £10million to £610million in the last year, making him much richer than his mother Queen Elizabeth II who was worth £370million. The monarch, who acceded to the throne less than two years ago, ranks 258th in the list of the UK’s 350 wealthiest people and families, up from 263rd place in 2023. Calculations by the Sunday Times Rich List suggest the monarch has benefited from a boost to the net worth of his properties.

Iran arrests 260 at ‘Satanist’ meeting

Iranian security forces have arrested more than 260 people, including three European nationals, at a “Satanist” gathering west of the capital Tehran. Reuters quotes the semi-official news agency Tasnim reporting that raid follows a nationwide crackdown against women accused of flouting Iran’s strict Islamic dress code. “Satanist network broken up in Tehran, arrests of three European nationals,” Tasnim wrote. It said 146 men and 115 women had been arrested and that alcohol, banned under Iran’s Islamic laws, and psychedelic drugs had been seized. The news agency also published photographs alongside its report showing masks, what appeared to be model skulls and T-shirts with skulls on.

UK ‘predator’ teacher convicted of sex with schoolboys

A teacher has been found guilty of having sex with two teenage pupils – falling pregnant by one while on bail. Rebecca Joynes, 30, was already suspended from her high school job and on bail for sexual activity with Boy A, 15, when she then began a sexual relationship with the second youngster, Boy B, whom she later became pregnant by. Neither teenager can be identified. She denied the charges and claimed no sexual activity ever took place with Boy A, while a relationship with Boy B – which developed while she was suspended from her job – only became sexual after she was dismissed and he had left school at 16, so no offence had taken place.

But following a two-week trial at Manchester Crown Court Joynes was found guilty of four counts of sexual activity with a child and two counts of sexual activity with a child by a person in a position of trust. The jury of seven men and five women returned their verdicts after being sent out on Thursday morning. Petite, softly-spoken and described by the teenagers as “really pretty” Joynes closed her eyes and grimaced, before she began visibly shaking as she stood in the dock as the guilty verdicts were returned by the jury foreman following a two week trial. Judge Kate Cornell thanked jurors and said she would need reports on the defendant before she can pass sentence in July.

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