Beyond the Bubble: A2019 U.S. airstrike raises questions of war crimes and the UN agrees on terms for the future of AI

Lily Yost, News Reporter

80 casualties revealed in undisclosed 2019 U.S. airstrike in Syria 

On March 18, 2019, as the final days of battle against the Islamic State unraveled, U.S. military drones circled over a dirt field in a Syrian town. Women and children crowded against a riverbank as an American F-15E fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb, killing 80. The survivors dispersed, only to be hit with a 2,000-pound bomb, followed by another, killing a majority of the survivors. 

After an investigation by the New York Times, news of the attack would surface nearly three years later. The NYT sent their findings to the U.S. Central Command, which monitored the air war in Syria. Only then did the command acknowledge the attack and report that 80 people died on that day in Baghuz, Syria. 

A review of the bombing is to be conducted by the commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces command, General Michael Garrett. 

The inquiry will assess “the civilian casualties that resulted in the incident, compliance with the law of war, record keeping and reporting procedures, whether mitigation measures identified in previous investigations into the incident were in fact implemented effectively, weather accountability measures would be appropriate, and finally whether authorities, procedures, or processes should be altered,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Monday, Nov. 29.

General Garrett will have 90 days to conduct the inquiry. 

In the entire war against the Islamic State, the Baghuz Strike is one of the largest civilian casualty incidents to date. 

According to reports from the NYT, the U.S. military worked to conceal the strike. The death toll was downplayed and reports were delayed and classified. Without notifying top military officials, the attack site was bulldozed by a U.S.-led coalition. 

The U.S. Central Command justified the attack, saying it killed 16 fighters and four civilians. They said it was unclear if the remaining 60 were civilians or not because women and children sometimes picked up weaponry and participated in the fight. They stressed that it was an accident, and that the strike was lawful because a small number of civilians died at the expense of targeting Islamic State fighters to protect coalition forces. 

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent it,” said Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command in a statement to the “Times.” 

He said the command takes “full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”

The first worldwide agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence

On Thursday, Nov. 25, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the first international agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI). 

The effort began in 2018 with Audrey Azoulay, the Director General of UNESCO, who wanted to establish an ethical framework for use of AI. After three years of international discussions and the input of hundreds of experts around the world, all 193 countries in the UN adopted the new terms for AI use. 

“The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It sets the first global normative framework while giving states the responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices,” said Azoulay. 

The document outlines ways member states can aid in the healthy development of AI and protect individuals from the dangers of AI. 

Artificial intelligence refers to a machine that is capable of using human-like intelligence, including interpreting data, and potentially using that data to learn new information on its own. 

Today, AI is everywhere—it’s used by banks to assess an individual’s fitness to receive a loan, for social media platforms and mobile phone assistants like Amazon Alexa and Siri from Apple, cancer screenings, and assisting disabled people—there’s even a human-like robot named Sophie that can hold a conversation and has spoken at the UN. 

However, AI is a two-sided coin: UNESCO recognized increased gender and ethnic bias with AI, threats to privacy and fear of mass surveillance. 

The UNESCO agreement emphasized the benefits AI can provide and the necessity of thoughtful implementation. The Recommendation includes protection of data to ensure transparency between companies and individuals, the ability for people to access their personal data and have the choice to erase it, and the elimination of social scoring (rating a user’s influence based on their following) and mass surveillance. 

An Ethical Impact Assessment will help countries and companies develop and (if it poses a threat) destroy AI. It will also monitor the impact these technologies have on society, individuals and the environment. 

“Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepening them,” UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences Gabriel Ramos said. 

Access to the full document can be found on the UNESCO official website.