News & Perspectives

Human Rights in the World : Today and Tomorrow

Human Rights in the World : Today and Tomorrow

Columbia University 2017 World Leaders Forum by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Perspective// Posted by: Christine Mason / 19 Dec 2017

by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

Editor’s note: Although the United Nations has not yet addressed the issues of iCitizenship or future AI rights (see “Five Questions We Should Be Asking About Sophia”), the institution is deeply engaged with questions of human rights in the digital age. The following lecture was delivered at Columbia University on 14 November 2017. It eloquently demonstrates a growing international concern about the imperative of embedding human rights protocols into our online and cyber commerce, communication, and even combat. Along with the text of the speech, the UN provided us with a link to the recording.


President Bollinger, Vice President Al Masri, Dear Friends,

It is sometimes difficult to see extremes and then fathom the extent to which they belong to the same canvass of human experience. But this is how it was for me recently. Within an eight-day span, I went from being in Silicon Valley where – and I find this simply staggering – digital engineers, using artificial intelligence, are reading the human mind; to visiting Libya, a country so broken and dangerous it is practically the only place the in the world in which the UN has no permanent presence. Put another way, I had to transition mentally from wading in a festival of creativity to coping in a country teeming with hundreds of armed groups, committing the most horrific human rights violations; where thousands of people, mainly migrants, are subjected to slavery, trafficking and sexual violence, and almost anyone may be the object of arbitrary violence.

Peering into the future, one minute, and then landing in some distant past of humanity the next. "Mind blown!" as my sixteen-year old son would say.

And yet, my Office and I are very relevant to both contexts. Universal human rights law needs to be applied in both of these situations. Both demand the anchoring force of principles, for conscience and practical guidance – a deeper consciousness of rights.

That is my job: there you have it, in a nutshell: my mandate as High Commissioner. But it is your job too. Because this is what I think universities are here to do: to help people grasp what is happening around them, and to develop an understanding of what can, and must, be changed – and how to do it.

Human rights face a stress test today. The kaleidoscope of global politics is shifting, and the approach which seems in the ascendant is a blinkered, blind-alley vision of domination, nationalism, and walled-in sovereignty. This is your future we are talking about – and we need to turn this around. Because we believe cooperation is possible. An end to extreme poverty, hunger and many other human-made human rights violations is entirely within reach. But world leaders seem increasingly to be turning away from multilateral institutions, making it impossible to work up solutions.

Libya is one extreme example: a disastrous human rights landscape – the lawless expression of conflict and destruction. And yet even in this incredibly bleak setting, we can take steps to improve the situation; I went there to discuss that. We believe deeply the actions of my Office, along with the efforts of others, like UN Special Rapporteurs and the Treaty Bodies, can help to pull societies back from open violence – and we can, over time, assist in bringing about peace, as I believe our work has done in Colombia, to take one example.

So in Libya, as elsewhere – in an alarming, and growing, number of countries, in fact – we will keep trying to push back against persistent human rights violations.

But new challenges have also entered the scene, at another extreme, and this is what I would like to discuss in greater depth with you today. Because digital technology is swiftly revolutionising every aspect of human life, and it introduces complexities for human rights that also demand our urgent attention.

No medium in human history has ever been as intimate or ubiquitous as the Internet. It is present, at our fingertips, whenever we call. A smartphone is like Ala’iddin's lamp: you pull it out of your pocket and rub it, and wherever you are, the genie appears. On average, according to some research I recently read, American smartphone users tap, click and swipe their phones 2,617 times every day.

In 1970 Marshall McLuhan, paraphrasing Einstein, pointed out that "We live invested in an electric information environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to fish". Well, you certainly live in it. You are digital natives. I am a digital immigrant – still a bit of an outsider; an imperfect fish – and from this slightly awkward vantage point, I have become an avid observer of the online environment.

I see that the digital universe offers us amazing possibilities for human rights work. We already use satellite imagery and encrypted communications to ensure better monitoring, investigation and analysis of human rights violations in places where the authorities refuse to give us access. New data streams have been used to track and interrupt human trafficking and exploitation, and have tracked modern slavery in supply chains. Social media has become a significant source of evidence, including witness testimony and video of human rights violations – although adequate confirmation of this kind of evidence can be a challenge.

Use of the Internet can also massively boost public participation and social justice. Over a million people participated online in consultations leading to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, to take one example very close to us. Last year a study by PwC found that bringing Internet access to the 4.1 billion people in the world who do not have it would vastly increase global economic output and raise 500 million people out of poverty. The main barrier they found was not a lack of infrastructure, but lack of money – people still cannot afford to be online.

We need more measures to resolve this digital deficit. States' obligations to protect a free and open Internet derive from fundamental, and universally accepted human rights – most obviously, freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Internet connectivity has also become essential to freedom of association, full participation in social, cultural and political life, and the right to development.

The UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have clearly affirmed that rights which we hold to be inalienable "off-line" must also be protected online.

But a growing wave of copycat measures by States sharply undermines human rights, and clearly threatens the existence of a free and open Internet.

Shutdowns – cutting Internet connectivity, or blocking, temporarily or permanently, specific websites – are twinned with crackdowns, which use digital surveillance to track and target activists and human rights defenders. In China, the "Great Firewall" essentially restricts access to all but government-approved websites. In Egypt, more than 400 websites operated by media outlets and human rights NGOs have been blocked. In 2016, according to the NGO Freedom House, authorities in 38 countries arrested people because they published, shared or liked social media posts.

Attacks by States on online freedom, and the use of surveillance to target and harm human rights defenders, are an acute concern for my Office. Any measures to restrict access to, block or remove content from Internet sites – on the part of governments wielding countering-terrorism policies, or for any other reason – must comply with international human rights standards. They should be proportionate to the threat; demonstrably necessary in their most precise details; as minimally restrictive as possible; supervised by public bodies; and defined by laws which derive from public consultation.

Attempts to censor and exploit the digital space for political purposes put private companies under enormous pressure. It cannot have escaped you that even as the digital space has expanded, it has also become more narrow, dominated by a handful of corporations – Facebook, Google, Microsoft and so on. Governments increasingly demand these businesses become regulators of content. National officials have threatened to close down the services of companies unless given direct access to communications traffic; others have tapped fibre-optic cables for surveillance purposes. Governments have also used surveillance of telecommunications networks to target political opponents and dissidents. They have enacted legal requirements to take down or block content – and in other cases, have demanded that content be removed even when it is not illegal under domestic law.

Compliance with such orders – or the decision not to comply with them –require assessments of context, and knowledge of both national and international law; and this is knowledge that many companies admit they do not grasp. However, when a company supplies data to a State in contravention of the right to privacy under international law – or when a company provides mass surveillance technology or equipment to States without adequate safeguards in place, or where the information is intended for a use in violation of human rights – that company clearly risks becoming complicit in human rights abuses.

 And despite our sympathy for greater regulation of online content, we need to be wary of how such measures will play in places where the actual commitment to free speech and open civic space is much more limited. As with measures taken to counter terrorism, we know repressive governments will gladly take whatever space we give them to block speech and punish those who dare to use the digital space to challenge their policies. We do need to act, but a sledgehammer approach will do enormous harm.

Companies should, therefore, avoid being either exploited by governments or becoming vehicles for the fanning of violent extremism. Indeed, in the context of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and other initiatives, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube aim to better address a number of difficult questions regarding freedom of expression in the context of violent extremism. They know they are becoming conduits for forms of expression, which incite hatred and violence; as well as specific and despicable forms of harassment and online stalking, of women in particular – and they want to know how to stop it. All of these are areas that clearly cry out for much more practical guidance on rights, including from my Office, and we will continue to try to step up our efforts to provide advice on measures that can – and must – be taken in line with human rights.

Big data is another issue which raises disturbing human rights concerns. An authority on the digital space told me just last week: “Privacy is dead, what is at stake now is the integrity of the data collected.” Corporate surveillance and the monetization of the personal data of everyone who uses the Internet is a distinct issue from State surveillance of human rights activists. In both cases, however, serious questions arise over the extent to which individuals are aware of what data they are sharing, how, with whom, and to what use they will be put: data is frequently being harvested and resold to ends for which individuals have not consented. Complex algorithms can also mask discrimination and wittingly or not, deepen inequalities.

Travelling more deeply into the digital labyrinth, we arrive at artificial intelligence – mind-boggling techniques whose rapid development may have immense implications for our human rights. Digital automation, such as blockchains, will certainly make many processes and decisions smarter, faster and cheaper – but ---- as we have already seen with the loss of jobs in manufacturing-- it will also raise issues of justice, discrimination, privacy, accountability and redress. Human rights has a critical role here, if we can find a way to integrate and adapt to the challenging tech environment. Ensuring that formal education of specialists in IT or robotics is grounded in a fundamental awareness of human rights imperatives, and building greater consciousness of critical ethical principles among today's coders and developers around the world, is an immense undertaking.

Ensuring that formal education of specialists in IT or robotics is grounded in a fundamental awareness of human rights imperatives, and building greater consciousness of critical ethical principles among today's coders and developers around the world, is an immense undertaking.

There is also a need for strengthened regulatory frameworks, but the complexity of the technology and algorithms and the high speed of change require better and new tools to ensure effective accountability. These are urgent tasks. Whether we are talking about the use of machines to diagnose illnesses, control automobiles or sense movement at borders – or the use of algorithms to recommend criminal sentences, triage medical care, screen job candidates or determine credit ratings – it is essential that human rights be baked into these systems from their inception. There is, today, a critical window of opportunity to build fundamental human rights and values into these future technologies and ecosystems before their mass adoption.

I have not yet mentioned weaponry. New technologies have already led to both development and deployment of increasingly autonomous weapons systems, whose use and rapid proliferation pose alarming risks to human life and rights. Armed drones are increasingly used for targeted killings, raising profound ethical, legal and moral questions; and many more States – and non-State actors – are seeking to acquire these technologies. Fully autonomous weapons – the so-called "killer robots” – eventually will be able to identify and fire on targets without any meaningful human intervention, giving them the power to determine when to take human life. And I find this worrying in the extreme.

Cyber-warfare techniques mean that States and State-sponsored hackers are now capable of attacking the computer systems of hospitals, dams, power-stations, or aircraft control systems – depriving civilians of essential services. We believe international humanitarian law applies to digital warfare techniques but given the current widespread indifference to violations of the Geneva Conventions, including bombardment of medical centres in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, there is every reason to be sceptical about whether states engaged in cyber-warfare will conform with the law.

These issues pose very real ethical, moral and legal challenges – for me; for you; and for future generations. There is a pressing need for compliance with the current legal frameworks, and for guidance on whether they ought to be supplemented, to ensure that people's human rights are kept at the forefront, as the digital universe continues to move forward. Progress cannot mean that the fundamental freedoms and rights which are inalienable, for every human being, are eroded or cast aside – such as freedom of expression, opinion and information; equal rights before the law; the right to privacy and to life, liberty and security.

With very limited resources, my Office will be doing its best to issue guidance on many of these issues. But we also need a constituency of people who will back us. People who are informed, who are thoughtful, and who care.

Which is where you come in. We need you. We need your concern and your intelligence. We need you to advise us and support us.

I am reminded of Niels Bohr, the Nobel-winning Danish physicist and father of quantum physics. In December 1943, Bohr went to Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project had embarked on building a completely new, world-changing weapon. At 57, he was the oldest scientist present; the average age of participants in the Manhattan Project was 29. And although he did add some marginal technical expertise to the project, his main contribution was to span the huge gap between the team's growing technological prowess and a needed thoughtfulness regarding the looming existence of nuclear weaponry. Bohr warned of a runaway arms race that would drain resources away from beneficial outcomes and focus them towards destruction. He inspired the physicists to think about the consequences of their work, and laid down the seeds of what would become the International Atomic Energy Agency: an effort at international control of nuclear proliferation.

Today, I believe we need to think much more deeply about the ethical implications of what we do.

In places like Yemen, the growing deadlock between rival political blocks is allowing conflicts to deepen in horror and magnitude. Without a sense of common purpose, a desire to work together on the basis of universal principles, the mayhem cannot be contained; it has and will continue to spread. We need to return to the question of why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II, what was it there for, and why we should still adhere to it. Because the alternative has been tried, and it was catastrophic; and because human equality and dignity are the inalienable rights of every human being. Recognising and fulfilling those rights – not partially as has been the case, but completely – builds peace for us all.

The digital universe, too, must be made fit for human purposes.

The digital universe, too, must be made fit for human purposes.

People's rights and needs must be placed at the centre of this complex, thrilling and sometimes frightening new world.

I welcome your thoughts on how we can achieve this together.


Thank you,

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

Christine Mason
Christine maps new markets for emerging technologies, scouts for strategic expansion opportunities, and guides internal innovation strategies for leading companies.