In a 2018 book, Enrique Piracés, a human rights technology practitioner opined that “the future of human rights will be intertwined with the advancement of technology”.  These words, though predictive, have a strong historical and normative backing. From the mid-20th century, world powers recognised the right to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits” and to enjoy the “benefits of scientific progress and its applications”. They also acknowledged in a Declaration that “scientific and technological progress” is increasingly influencing the “development of human society”. From a  lens, it is submitted that various technological tools present great prospects for improving efforts to secure human rights. As technology evolves and continues to impact our lives enormously, it is important to examine the approaches guiding its conceptualisation, design, and deployment, and more importantly, how these affect human rights.

Why a rights-based approach?

Although primarily conceived from a global development context, it is argued that the human rights-based approach (HRBA) has transcended boundaries to other fields like cultural property, food security, migration, among others. The approach is gradually becoming “specialised and diverse” and has been flexibly interpreted based on several factors including thematic focus, politics, environment and culture. Regardless of this flexibility, the underlying view is that the approach describes work shaped by global human rights standards.

Because of its legal foundations, HRBA provides a clear mechanism for “balancing competing interests in the development of technology”. It implores technologists to appreciate the implications of their products on fundamental human rights and prescribes mandatory safeguards against infringement of certain rights like privacy and non-discrimination, in the conceptualisation of technological products. HRBA is further touted as a panacea for “issues raised by new and emerging technology” and can guide the “design, development and implementation” as well as regulation of these technologies. The approach can bring about “insights on the ethical meaning of new technologies” and examine how existing policies can resonate with developments in science. HRBA provides innovators with the “aspirational, normative, and legal guidance” to ensure human dignity of all without geographical or jurisdictional distinctions.”  

A rights-based approach is buttressed by five major principles which guide its implementation. These are: participation, accountability, non-discrimination, empowerment, and legality. These principles imply that for technology to comply with human rights standards, they should be developed with the input of the prospective users. The said technologies should facilitate accountability by ensuring perpetrators of rights violations are brought to book. Technology ought to be inclusive to all people regardless of economic, social and physical status. Additionally, technological innovations should skill and tool rights holders to demand for their rights, Lastly, technology must be aligned to universally acceptable legal standards.

The Flipside

The above arguments notwithstanding, HRBA is not without blemish. Some scholars contend that it is being “force-fed” by donors and promoted hastily before resolving some “very troubling matters” issues surrounding human rights. These include the competing hierarchy of the various rights, the need to balance individual and collective rights, the idea of progressive realization, the role of non-state actors and the efficacy of legal recourse, among others.

Additionally, the dependence of the approach on ratification of international human rights law instruments by states is highlighted as another downside since ratification is largely driven by political rather than human rights considerations. Lastly, some commentators have raised particular concerns with the flexibility of a rights-based approach arguing that stretching it to different situations might dilute its meaning and complicate efforts to distinguish its application from that of other approaches. It risks becoming conceptually weak as it may be used based on the interests of those pushing for a specific agenda.

Conclusion

It is undeniable that technology is a tool for human rights protection and a rights-based approach is essential in the design of technological innovations. Its weaknesses aside, the approach provides a solid normative basis and inspiration for technologists to design innovations that are aligned to global human rights standards hence entrenching human rights in society.

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