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Soft law

UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of AI

Full name of the document
UNESCO Recommendation of 23 November 2021 on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
Body / organism enacting the document
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Nature of the body / organism
International body
Type of document
Ethical principles
Project area
AI and health
AI and consumer markets
AI and data protection
Cross sector, general scope
Law area
Privacy / data protection
Consumer protection
Fundamental rights protection

Summary of the document

The fundamental principles of the UNESCO Recommendation are respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, promoting human well-being and environmental sustainability, ensuring diversity, inclusion, and equity, solidarity and cooperation, and transparency and responsibility.

The Recommendation touches upon seven policy areas: Data Governance: recommends the ethical handling of data, emphasising privacy, protection, and the rights of individuals over their personal data; Education and Skills: stresses the importance of education and capacity building in AI ethics and technologies, aiming to empower individuals with the knowledge to engage with AI critically; Culture and Cultural Diversity: encourages the use of AI to preserve cultural heritage and promote cultural diversity; Social and Economic Justice: AI should contribute to social and economic justice, reducing inequalities rather than exacerbating them; Environmental and Ecological Health: AI systems should be developed with consideration for their environmental impact, promoting ecological health and sustainability; Peace and Security: promotes the use of AI in a manner that supports peace and security, while preventing its use in ways that could harm human beings or lead to conflicts; and Gender Equality: calls for AI to be developed and used in ways that promote gender equality and address gender-based biases.

Type of addressees
Unspecified addressees
Territorial scope
Situations involved

UNESCO's Recommendation on the Ethics of AI is a global standard adopted by all member states in November 2021. It outlines key principles for the ethical development and use of artificial intelligence.

AI system(s) involved
  • All types of AI systems
  • General purpose AI
  • Specific intended purpose AI
  • Machine learning
  • Deep learning
Fundamental rights involved
  • Freedom of expression
  • Environmental rights
  • Political rights
  • Right to access to justice, to a fair trial and to jury trial
  • Right to an effective remedy
  • Right to data protection
  • Right to education
  • Right to privacy
  • Right to private and family life
  • Right to informed consent
  • Right to non-discrimination
  • Peace and security
Principles expressly addressed
  • Accountability
  • Equality
  • Explainability
  • Non-discrimination
  • Precautionary
  • Proportionality
  • Rule of law
  • Transparency
Connection with hard law
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
  • Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951)
  • Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (1958)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006)
  • Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960)
  • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005)
Possible legal force and impact on national/supranational legal system

The potential legal impact of the UNESCO’s Recommendation could be explored in five dimensions:

  1. Harmonisation of AI Policies: The Recommendation encourages a harmonised approach to AI governance globally, which could lead to more consistent policies and regulations across borders, facilitating international cooperation and the global digital economy.
  2. Promotion of Ethical Standards: By advocating for principles such as transparency, accountability, fairness, and respect for privacy and human dignity, the Recommendation could significantly influence how national legal systems approach the regulation of AI technologies.
  3. Protection of Human Rights: The emphasis on human rights within the Recommendation may bolster efforts to ensure that AI technologies do not infringe upon fundamental rights and freedoms, prompting legal systems to incorporate stronger protections.
  4. Encouragement of Responsible Innovation: The document encourages a balanced approach to AI innovation, one that promotes technological advancement while ensuring ethical considerations are front and center, potentially influencing national policies on research and development.
  5. Impact on Supranational Entities: For supranational entities, such as the European Union, the Recommendation may serve as a reference point for the development of broader AI regulatory frameworks that affect multiple countries within the entity.

Case author
Ivo Emanuilov
LIBRe Foundation