You are here: UNA-UK welcomes Prime Minister’s announcement of a technological values summit

25 September 2019

Prime Minister Johnson gave his inaugural address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday the 24th and used the opportunity to talk about the potential threats and opportunities that emerging technologies represent.

You can watch the speech here.

The Prime Minister attempted to demonstrate the value of the UK on the world stage as an initiator of important projects, in this instance with respect to emerging technology. The focus continues a thread started by his predecessor, who in a speech to Davos in 2018 declared UK’s commitment to international leadership in “ethical AI”. The Prime Minister made a strong case for the need for technology to be designed with reference to a common set of values and made reference in this regard to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). He also invited the nations of the world to attend a summit, to be held in London at some point in 2020, with the objective of defining a set of global principles that new and emerging technologies should follow.

UNA-UK welcomes this announcement. We have long argued that issues such as the risks and opportunities provided by emerging technology which cross national borders need to be solved at a global level. UNA-UK has campaigned for a binding legal treaty to prevent the emergence of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). The Prime Minister's reference to “pink eyed terminators” suggests an interest in this idea, but the UK needs to significantly improve its own position on regulating LAWS if it is to take a leadership role.

The risks posed by emerging technologies are one of the six key areas that our Together First process will consider. Together First takes precisely the approach the Prime Minister advocated: working to spark a global conversation around the need to better regulate and govern the existential threats that face us, such as climate change and emerging technology, in accordance with universal values such as the UDHR.

While we await further details with interest we also welcome, in principle, the idea of a London summit on technological govenrnance and values. At a time when the UK is perceived as withdrawing from the global stage the hosting of high profile conference such as this, the Time For Justice: Putting Survivors First international conference in November 2019, and the UN climate change summit (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2020, helps reverse that perception. UNA-UK have long argued that the most effective way for the UK to increase its international standing is by finding and performing this kind of useful diplomatic role.

This is particularly important given that the UK declined to send a minister to the launch event for "An Alliance for Multilateralism", which included highly relevant workstreams on security in cyberspace and on lethal autonomous weapons systems. While we have some reservations about the alliance itself it is important that the UK find ways to work alongside other states to champion the cause of multilateraism - unilaterally announced initiatives will be limited in their efficacy.

Therefore, while we appreciate the Prime Minister making a substantive speech on a specific subject, in marked contrast to the highly general and frequently rote speeches that the General Assembly often receives, we do find it regrettable that the Prime Minister missed the opportunity to more explicitly defend our multilateral system, which had come under sustained attack earlier in the day, or to highlight the need to shore up and strengthen our international system more broadly. In this regard UNA-UK hopes that the UK will promptly acknowledge publicly the opportunities presented by the UN75 anniversary process.

Domestically, the Prime Minister’s speech, and the General Assembly in general, have been overshadowed by the unusual constitutional situation in the United Kingdom, and speculation regarding the process for the UK’s exit for the European Union. This further demonstrates the argument made in a report by academics at UK Universities in conjunction with UNA-UK that the perception that the UK's exit from the EU has distracted it from its international obligations has damaged the nation’s standing on the global stage. It is highly regrettable that this process is now diverting attention from the most important event in the diplomatic calendar.

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Photo: Prime Minister Johnson addresses the UNGA; UN Photo.