GHRP Annual Conference Tackles Digitalization and Human Rights

15 November 2022

The 2022 Annual Conference of the Geneva Human Rights Platform addressed the issue of digital connectivity in the field of human rights via an expert meeting in the morning and a public discussion in the afternoon. Discussions notably looked at digital connections by and among mechanisms within the human rights system, but also at the substantive impacts of digitalization.

‘For this 2022 edition, we wanted to take stock of the challenges and opportunities that digitalization poses to both the protection of human rights and the work of human rights mechanisms at the national, regional and international levels’ underlines Felix Kirchmeier, Executive Director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

‘As in previous editions of our Annual Conference, it was key for us to do it with partners and key stakeholders – NGOs, academic institutions and international organizations’ he adds.

Setting the Tone: A Right to be Online – A Right to be Offline?

In her keynote, Teki Akuetteh – Founder and Executive Director of the Africa Digital Rights Hub – set the tone of the conference and introduced discussions related to positive and negative aspects of connectivity by saying that ‘digital connectivity is not just a luxury but a fundamental facet of our society. The past few years have underscored the importance of digital connectivity to the survival of our planet and the human race.’

On the one hand, the digital gap remains huge and access to the internet – a right to be connected – continues to be a major issue in many parts of the world. On the other, and in light of security and privacy concerns, many advocate for a right to be offline and for a right not to be under constant surveillance by private and state actors.

Experts Discuss National Digital Tracking Tools

Since 2021, the GHRP has been conducting research to understand what is needed for National Human Rights Systems (NHRSs) to effectively coordinate and monitor the implementation of recommendations from the global human rights system at the national level.

With an increasing number of recommendations emanating from the United Nations (UN) treaty bodies (TBs), the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and UN special procedures – and the clock ticking to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – NHRSs’ face increasing challenges to manage this wealth of information, track progress and collect and access data. This onerous task can also often compete for attention with other national priorities.

‘To find ways to counter this issue and devise solutions, we have included in our 2022 Annual Conference agenda an expert roundtable with representatives of 15 different governments, international organizations and civil society organizations that launched innovative digital human rights tracking tools and databases’ explains Dr Domenico Zipoli, Project Coordinator at the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

‘Such tools aim at assisting states to coordinate and monitor implementation of human rights and the SDGs, and to communicate progress to the public. They cluster recommendations with the assignment of responsibilities to relevant ministries or other bodies, the monitoring of activities and the allocation of relevant budgets. They act as tracking databases of recommendations that can be digitally filtered by keyword, convention, affected person, etc. They are primarily designed to help National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up and National Human Rights Institutions, but can also be used by civil society to hold governments accountable’ he adds.

Tools presented and discussed at the expert roundtable include OHCHR’s Universal Human Rights Index (UHRI)/National Recommendations Tracking Database (NRTD); Paraguay’s SIMORE PLUS (Spanish acronym for System for Monitoring Recommendations) – also introduced in other Latin American countries such as Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and adapted to the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; digital development efforts by the Samoan National Mechanism for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up (SADATA) through the use of IMPACT OSS (Integrated Management and Planning of Actions Open Source Software); as well as UWAZI, developed by the Geneva-based NGO Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems (HURIDOCS).

‘In the upcoming months – and building on the exchanges at this expert roundtable – we will continue to engage with these software developers and users to create a community of practice and online resources to strengthen these tools and facilitate coordination and exchange of best practices to ultimately contribute to a better implementation of human rights recommendations at the national level’ underlines Dr Zipoli.

Addressing the Impact of Digitalization and the Need for New Rights

The afternoon’s public segment of the conference addressed – via two panels – the impact of digitalization on human rights, the implications of being ON and OFF the grid, and the role of UN human rights mechanisms.

One main question discussed was the need for new e-rights and whether the interpretation of existing rights is sufficient or whether we need new rights, such as the right to online connectivity.

As the Rector of the University of Geneva, Professor Yves Flückiger pointed out in the opening: ‘For some parts of the global population, the dichotomy ‘online-offline’ is blurring ever more. We become super-connected and combine the online and offline aspects of our lives in all aspects. In university, we also promote open science, and open access to data and research, but this openness also would also entail security risks’.

Ambassador Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN in Geneva, recalled Switzerland’s principled stand as formulated in the Swiss digital foreign policy strategy: ‘Human rights are equally valid in both the physical and the digital worlds and they apply without geographical restrictions online and offline’. He also stressed that the ‘universality’ of human rights takes a new meaning and dimension brought by the 4th industrial revolution. Aside from new dimensions to traditional rights, such as freedom of expression, a new interpretation of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would also include a right to internet access. Relating to the panels of the conference, he called for robust regulation for surveillance technology and also cautioned that ‘ technical solutions alone will not bridge digital divides and mend inequalities in access and use of digital technologies. Digital inclusion rests on meaningful connectivity and access, digital literacy and empowerment of users.’

Turning to the role that UN human rights mechanisms can play in this field, Professor Gloria Gaggioli, Director of the Geneva Academy, added: ‘We see in recent times growing interest and output by the UN human rights bodies on topics relating to the internet and digitalization.’ But a next step beyond the individual examples could be providing a comprehensive take on digitalization.

Watch Panel 1: ‘ON’ – Human rights implications of digital connectivity for surveillance, interception and data collection

Watch Panel 2: ‘OFF’ – Human rights implications of the digital gap and digital disruptions

‘The outcomes of those discussions will guide our work throughout the coming year’ explains Felix Kirchmeier.

‘The afternoon discussions also showed the need, in our collaboration with UN human rights mechanisms, to bring them together in order to find a comprehensive approach to digitalization that transcends the areas of specific mandates. A thematic approach ‘by right’ is no longer sufficient’ he adds.

Looking at the 2023 Annual Conference

The issue of connectivity will also remain a topic of the 2023 Annual Conference that will focus on the connectivity of the human rights discourse between Geneva and New York.

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