The last two decades have witnessed the explosion of new technological opportunities and threats to human rights. Like most tools, technology is dual faced; potentially achieving both positive and negative ends. This is equally true in matters of human rights where on one hand, it can protect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms and on the other, it can be deployed to curtail the enjoyment of human rights. This intricate relationship merits further attention to ascertain how technology impacts human rights and accountability processes.
For starters, the place of technology in the human rights discourse can be traced in the international bill of human rights which recognise the right to enjoy scientific advancement and the benefits of scientific progress. A United Nation’s Declaration acknowledges that scientific and technological progress has become one of the most important factors in the development of human society. It therefore follows that reconsidering conventional human rights in the technical-scientific sector is critical so as to uphold personal rights in the digital era. As such, it is first important to examine how technology suits into the principles of human rights and the attendant obligations they create.
The notion that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated relates with technology in different ways. It has been opined that Universality and inalienability should recognize the in-built power and privilege in technological systems. Indivisibility, interdependence, and interrelatedness require attention to the effects of technology on all categories of rights. Other principles like participation requires public involvement in decision making while accountability involves provision of remedies when rights are abused/violated. Finally, non-discrimination and equality root for the prohibition, prevention and elimination of all forms of discrimination. Consequently, the conceptualisation of any human rights technological concept needs to be hinged on these principles for it to serve its purpose.
Under international human right law, three obligations exist i.e. to respect, protect and fulfil. In the context of technology, these obligations can be explained in paragraphs 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the Declaration and include; extending benefits of science and technology to the entire populations, ensuring the use of science and technology promotes the full realisation of human rights, prevent the use of technology to stifle human rights and lastly, ensure compliance with laws that guarantee human rights in the face of scientific and technological developments.
Against the above background, it is thus important to examine how technology supports human rights. With increased digitisation and use of the internet, technology is facilitating the dissemination of human rights information across the world. It has become a tool for promoting, monitoring, documenting and reporting human rights. Reliable human rights data can be a basis for individual/government accountability, victim support and design of deterrent interventions. The ready availability of mobile recording devices like smartphones, and the expansive reach of Information and Communications Technology implies that it is possible to remotely collect evidence of alleged human rights violations. Aronson observes that several people nowadays “produce video content and share it through social media, the Internet, semiprivate communication channels like Telegram and Snapchat, or privately via e-mail or physical storage.” This demonstrates the potential role of technology in supporting human rights and accountability processes as can be seen in various investigations including fact-finding missions and international criminal trials.
However, not all is rosy. Because of its double-edged nature, advancements in technology raise some issues. The Declaration notes “with concern” how technology can pose dangers to civil and political rights generally including the right to privacy, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of expression. A lot of personal information is voluntarily shared by users of new technologies like social media. At the same time, some information is secretly or skilfully harvested by the developers of these technologies for commercial reasons. Similarly, governments are increasingly intrusive for security and other reasons including curtailing the enjoyment of rights. The uneven internet connectivity across the world means that certain sections of society are marginalised and may not enjoy the benefits of these technological developments contrary to a core human rights principle of non-discrimination.
In summing up, there is close link between technology and human rights accountability. Technology’s documentary abilities facilitate efforts to hold human rights violators accountable. Innately, technology does not pose any threat to human rights, but it can be maliciously manipulated by users to the detriment of rights. As such, one can conclude that technology is a double-edged sword; a weapon for protection of human rights as well as a device to disguise, hinder, and obscure human rights and accountability processes.