Human rights should be at the heart of tech governance – OHCHR

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01 September 2022

Governments have a duty to protect citizens against abuse and misuse of digital technologies,” said Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. “We must work together to mitigate the harmful use of technologies in order to fully harness its enabling potential.” Al-Nashif made her statement during a panel discussion that looked at efficient ways of using new technologies to overcome human rights challenges in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the discussion, participants highlighted the risks associated with the use of technologies in governance while exchanging good practices and policy recommendations for UN system support to States in advancing good governance to promote and protect human rights during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Throughout the discussion, participants emphasized the ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the world on so many fronts.
“It has further deepened inequalities, exacerbated fragilities and exposed major trust deficits in governances,” said Jan Beagle, Director-General of the International Development Law organization (IDLO).
It challenged the world to innovate and has pushed governments and institutions towards accelerating their digital transformation, she added. Amidst the pandemic, technology has played a dominant role and has been a force for good enabling all spheres to continue operating. Yet, the use of digital technologies has raised several concerns and uncovered multifaceted risks, as the digital world is often unregulated Beagle said.
“We have documented the exploitation of people’s data and a rush to introduce various privacy-invasive technologies without assessing their effectiveness or impact,” said Ilia Siatitsa, Programme Director and Senior Legal Officer at Privacy International. Such acts not only threaten the privacy of millions of people but provide the gateway to the violation of all other rights, she added.
In response to the increasing threat to human rights of some technological advances,  the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched two initiatives in 2020: the Call to Action for Human Rights, and a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, in response to the urgent need to regulate the use of artificial intelligence. In addition, the UN Human Rights Office is developing UN system-wide guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the use of new technologies, complementary to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Despite their widespread benefits, digital technologies are often used to “curtail the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of peaceful assembly” said Bum-Suk Baek, a member of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. Governments restricting rights by shutting down internet services or selectively blocking access to online resources, censoring media outlets, and persecuting people for expressing their opinions online, he said.
Together, as we seek to recover from the pandemic, we must learn to better curtail harmful use of digital technology and to better unleash its power as a democratizing force and an enabler.
As reliance on technology has become the new normal, moving forward the panellists stressed the importance of putting human rights at the centre of tech governance. Key recommendations highlighted in the discussion included adopting a people-centred approach to digital innovation, ensuring that the use of technology is regulated by clear legal and policy frameworks with respect to human rights, and promoting digital empowerment alongside digital innovation.
The importance of monitoring compliance with the international human rights framework, notably the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and offering guidance on states and companies on how to apply such framework when introducing new technologies was also noted.
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