Harnessing digitalisation for the promotion of human rights

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December 10 marks the annual International Day of Human Rights. With the worldwide pandemic approaching its 24-month mark, inequalities have risen and societal vulnerabilities have surfaced around the world; as such, this year’s celebration is once again out of the ordinary. Much activity has transferred to the digital sphere, which has accelerated the development of technology and digital tools. In terms of human rights, digitalisation and technologisation are frequently considered as problems. Indeed, critical concerns such as digital rights, the digital gap, data protection, and privacy must be addressed to guarantee that the new digital world does not exacerbate or increase existing problems.

Yet, recognising and utilising the capabilities of both older and newer digital instruments has long been a vital factor in facilitating the achievement of human rights, as evidenced by the rising prominence of corresponding pledges, strategies, and recommendations on international organisations’ agendas. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it, we must “maximise the benefits but still curtail unintended consequences”. Indeed, much activity has taken place on the international level, including most prominently UNESCO’s Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a ground-breaking policy framework supported by ADG Gabriela Ramos, or the Secretary General’s comprehensive Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. These are important steps to exhausting the vast possibilities offered by technological advancements, as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif recognises “Digital technologies increasingly permeate all aspects of our lives and societies, transforming our health care, education, work, human rights activism, political participation, development and virtually all sectors of every economy”.

Bringing digital means to the local level

In daily human rights work, digitalisation does not only refer to bolstering digital rights or advocating for digital literacy. Utilising the benefits of technology in a meaningful way can take numerous forms, starting with the use of technological tools. The following three instances demonstrate how digital tools interact with the pursuit of the social good.

Recent technological advancements have been in-depth, thus also creating worries about the use of technologies such as AI, particularly in relation to human rights concerning non-discrimination, equality, and the ethical use of data. Still, as local governments across the globe are coming to learn, AI holds great potential for the realisation of the social good. The project CREATE SE4AI, hosted by a coalition of Canadian universities, offers a training programme on AI-based software systems with a focus on the social dimensions of AI, such as human rights and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to the UNESCO Recommendation indicated above, it is critical to integrate human rights issues in the design and implementation of such systems. Indeed, the uses of ethical AI are particularly promising at the local level, being able to bring substantial advantages to underserved people by promoting equal access to public services like health, education, social assistance, and public transportation.

To put digitisation on the agenda more publicly, the many good examples that exist should be shared and promoted widely. This, too, is dependent on technology: The annual “Human Rights Go Local – What Works” Academy and Conference hosted by the UNESCO Centre and UNESCO Chair in Graz, Austria, is one noteworthy example. The online winter academy brings together experts and practitioners from around the world in a unique context of exchange and dialogue. The goal is to identify best practices for human rights implementation at the local level, which are subsequently presented to high-level authorities at the closing Conference. This year’s event takes place under the title “From Intentions to Commitments: Towards the Effective and Sustainable Implementation of Human Rights” from 1 to 8 February 2022. The novel online environment allows for the breaking down of barriers, enables low-threshold and free entry to an expert forum, and stands to reach a broad audience well-positioned to communicate the event’s innovative results to decision-makers and beyond. The digital setting serves the objective of building much-needed bridges between governance levels and actors working on the realisation of innovative practices, with issues spanning from digital rights to community development in marginalised groups.

Finally, a rather surprising but foundational use of technological means can be found in back office administration and task management. The UNESCO Centre, for the better part of 20 years, has cooperated with the legal software developer Paragraph Software GmbH, the host of the software “ParaOffice”. The programme is aimed at law firms and serves as an “electronic cockpit” for better office administration. While robust digital infrastructure in institutions is rarely cited as a necessity to realising human rights, having the organisational means to efficiently achieve complicated human rights endeavours is a basic requirement that many organisations lack. The established software has allowed the human rights institutions in Europe’s first Human Rights City to focus completely on content, free of concerns about lost files, mismanaged workflows, or data security threats. The company’s commitment to and active advocacy of human rights causes as a lawful software provider an extra bonus to effective cooperation.

Talking the talk and walking the walk

What these examples show is that the digital world holds many opportunities. It is also becoming increasingly anchored deeply into our understanding of what is needed for truly successful and deep-reaching sustainable work on human rights. AI, large-scale innovative gatherings, and complex software to simplify daily work are all useful techniques that are being used as a staple by more organisations throughout the world. This presents a positive picture of what the human rights movement can achieve, even in difficult times: innovation, connectedness, and reliability. Keeping up with the many challenges ahead requires solid frameworks, guidelines and international commitments on the one hand, and daily initiatives, projects, and instruments on the other, all of which are brought together by the many organisations working to fulfil human rights. Even in the midst of a pandemic, digitalisation must not just serve as an evasive maneuver or a necessity, but also as a tool for achieving larger aims and resolving critical societal issues. Happy International Human Rights Day!