UN Decisions and Proposals
Chief, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland
I am very pleased to be here and be part of this conference to discuss important issues on behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. When thinking about the idea of a human right to connectivity, what is striking is how much the internet has become part of our everyday life. It has actually revolutionised what we, each of us, can do with information: access, store and share. It has changed how countries and political systems function. In large parts of the world the public space is increasingly and sometimes mainly, online. The link between connectivity and freedom of expression and the right to participate in the social, cultural and political life is clear. But there are also very many direct links to other rights, such as the right to education, work, social and economic development, and, increasingly, health. The more the implementation of these rights move online the more connectivity becomes central as an enabler, and the more States and others relevant actors have to take measures to ensure access to the internet.
As already stressed by the special advisor of the UN Secretary General, the fact that the UN 2030 framework for Sustainable Development includes targets relating to access to information and communications technology, and universal and affordable access to the internet, which is SDG Target 9C, bears testimony to the wide recognition of the significance of internet access for development. In that vein, the UNHRC pointed to far-reaching state obligations to provide and expand access to the internet. For instance, last year’s Human Rights Council resolution stated – and I quote – “affirm the importance of applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach in providing and in expanding access to the internet and requested all States to make efforts to bridge the many forms of digital divide”. Even the Independent UN Human Rights Committee has echoed this underlying obligation by States to take all necessary steps to foster the independence of this new media and to ensure access of individuals to it. Internet connectivity has been recognised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression as an indispensible tool for realising a range of human rights, combatting inequality and accelerating development and human progress. According to Frank La Rue, who as the Special Rapporteur in 2011 wrote a very significant report, the internet can only serve its purpose if States assume their commitment to develop effective policies to attain universal access. Otherwise, the digital divide will be perpetuated. He also stressed the importance of using existing international human rights standards in the debate around the digital space. States have also taken up this issue in the context of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, where they examine each other’s human rights record under the aegis of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the first two cycles of this peer reviewed State-to-State process there have been already multiple recommendations related directly to internet access and freedom of expression on the internet. Let me just quote a few of them in which States under review were asked to – I quote – “guarantee free and unrestricted access to the internet, to ensure affordable and unhindered access to the internet for all and continue efforts to improve and facilitate access to the internet and refrain from any restrictions on content, other than permitted under international human rights law”.
As we have entered just the third cycle of the UPR, which is a process of 4.5 years, the focus of the international community is clearly on implementation of these recommendations. And, I am pleased to recall what the UN Secretary General, in his report to the current session of the General Assembly on the work of the organisation, stated – I quote – “the Human Rights Council universal periodic review process is now entering a new cycle with every Member State scheduled for a third round of scrutiny. We will work to strengthen the relevance, the precision and impact of the Council recommendations, including by providing better support to Member States in implementation, stronger collaboration with UN entities and the establishment of national mechanisms for human rights reporting and follow-up, to link the UPR to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, a number of States have either passed legislation or undertaken policies that basically recognise access to the internet as a right”. But what exactly does it mean in practice, and is it happening in a normative void? No, clearly the human rights framework is as relevant as ever. And, the fact that human rights per se do not pay much attention to borders, make an even stronger case for the relevance to the inherently cross-border nature of the internet. States themselves have stressed in several resolutions that – I quote – “the same rights that people have offline, must be protected online”, as was referred to earlier on already. Yet, how can human rights provide guidance? Well generally the underlying idea of human rights, of putting human dignity at the centre of all the deliberations and law and policy-making, should actually guide the development use of new technologies.
I will flag four areas of how human rights can guide us in answering that specific question. First of all, equality and non-discrimination as key principles of human rights: the internet can do much in this area, for instance, by improving access to many goods and services, but also to work in remote areas and for poor people. However, so far, this is not the case. For instance, a report on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective, which was issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier this year, recalls that worldwide approximately 250 million fewer women than men are online and that women are 40% less likely than men to own a mobile phone which will give them access to the internet. It also shows that the more women’s rights are restricted in their everyday life, the less likely they are to benefit from the internet and digital technologies. In addition, the longstanding under-representation of women in sciences, technology, engineering sector, unless addressed urgently, may translate into the quasi-absent of women in the design of the digital universe, which as everyone predicts will be a constituent part of our world. Raising the number of girls and women present in the sphere of technology has therefore become more pressing than ever. In the SDG context, States have committed to ensure that women and men have equal access to basic services, including technology, by 2030.
The second point I want to raise is, not surprisingly, human rights are very clear when it comes to ways in which States interfere with internet access, including shutdowns, blocking, filtering, cyber attacks, etc. In response, human rights law stresses that any State interference, given the potential of using the internet to unduly restrict human rights and fundamental freedoms, must be proportionate, prescribed by law, necessary and least restrictive. Human rights also require that individuals from all segments of society, including the private sector, be consulted when related policies and laws are debated and adopted.
Third point: human rights give guidance on how to shape and pursue internet connectivity projects. Initiatives for greater connectivity should include thorough assessment of the possible human rights impact of those projects, employ inclusive and transparent processes and be non-discriminatory. It is crucial that projects that provide affordable access to the whole internet, rather than to preselected sections, projects that already carry the real possibility of creating surveillance or censorship infrastructure should not be pursued in our view.
Fourth point. Let me turn to the private sector, which runs large part of the global internet and plays a crucial role when connecting more and more communities to the internet. Human rights imply responsibilities for businesses, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide an alternative global standard for preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts, linked to business activities. Businesses thus have a responsibility not to contribute to human rights violation, be it in relation to exacerbating discrimination or facilitating State restrictions on access to the internet or to information. Furthermore, religious leaders and communities may also play an important role. And earlier this year our office launched a Faith for Rights Initiative that aims at fostering peaceful societies, which uphold human dignity and equality for all and where diversity is not just tolerated but fully respected and celebrated. The faith-based and civil society, after participating in a recent meeting in March, adopted the visionary Beirut Declaration with 18 commitments. This includes the plight to use technological means, more creatively and consistently in order to disseminate faith for rights messages, to enhance cohesive societies enriched by diversity, including in the areas of religious and beliefs.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that the internet has brought about change that was previously unthinkable but how “We the peoples”, to quote the Charter of the UN, respond to that change, how we use the opportunities it has brought about, it is up to us to decide. The internet must not be a vehicle for the elite, it must become a tool that truly empowers and brings together people and makes the world a fairer and better place. Doing so however, requires that international human rights norms, and international human rights mechanisms, inform and guide national policies and action, both in law and in practice.
Thank you very much.