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Statement by the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang 10 December 2011- Human Rights Day

Geneva, 9 December 2011

Madam President, Excellencies, Distinguished panellists and guests……

It is my great pleasure to welcome you here today to celebrate our annual Human Rights Day which falls on 10 December. This year, we are celebrating human rights through the social media, and I hope many of us have already joined on line in this celebration. 

As a very important part of this campaign, today, we will explore the powers of the social media in advancing human rights.  And we are very fortunate to have with us panellists from Egypt, Mexico, Tunisia, Uganda and the United Kingdom, who will share with us their views on this new world where information about what is happening and our reactions to it, can be shared real time globally. Social media, its power, is especially relevant after the events of 2010/2011 in North Africa and the Middle East in the Arab Spring.

Looking back at the year that’s been, it has truly been a remarkable year.  In cities, towns and villages globally, people have ventured from the safety of their homes and gone into the streets campaigning for their human rights.

They have often done so in the full knowledge that the risks are enormous. Thousands have died, disappeared, been injured and imprisoned but the demonstrations and demands for fundamental freedoms have continued - regimes which had for generations remained indifferent to the most basic rights of their citizens disintegrated in the face of such determination and strength. 

In a chain reaction, which has circled the globe, economic inequalities have led to outpourings of dissatisfaction in countries well beyond the Middle East and North Africa.  The Indignants in Spain, the Occupy Wall Street followers in New York and later in London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Kolkata, Tel Aviv, Tijuana and Singapore, protests followed in hundreds of cities and towns. 

The question we are asking is why and how did this happen now, and what was the role of the social media?  

Today we are going to look at these relatively new, inclusive methods of communication, which are distinguished from the traditional methodologies by their open and participatory characteristics. Social media invites engagement and we are going to ask how influential it has been in these recent events.

We will call on the expertise of our panellists in exploring the great benefits that are to be had in using social media – Facebook, Twitter, SMS messaging, YouTube - as essential aids in ensuring the protection and advancement of human rights at all levels and in many different situations.

Consider the Ushahidi site – Ushahidi means ‘testimony’ in Swahili - originally developed as a vehicle for citizen journalists to track post election violence in Kenya in 2008 but which has since become a platform used in crisis situations to gather and share information. It was used in Haiti after the earthquake, in Japan after the tsunami, and in Queensland, Australia during the January floods.

Our world has changed and continues to change.

This year our colleagues at the International Telecommunications Union estimate 6 billion of the 7 billion people now on the planet have a mobile telephone, a third of the 7 billion are on the internet.  In just five years the developing world’s share of internet users has jumped from 44 per cent to 62 per cent.

Facebook, launched in a dorm room at Harvard seven years ago, says it now has more than 800 million active users, half of whom log on in any given day. More than 70 languages are available on the site.

YouTube is even younger. Dreamt up four years ago, it claims that 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute.  

The first tweet was sent in March 2006. The company now claims 250 million tweets per day.

Which brings me to one of the most significant of today’s trends and that is the capacity we now have to access and move the technology around with us and hence to communicate in ways unimaginable less than a decade ago.

But this is not just a story about social upheaval, it is also a story about using new communication technologies to empower and support people at the community level in the day-to-day business of earning a living and enjoying the full range of rights to which we are all entitled.

We will be hearing from our panellists in just a moment but I would like now to introduce the President of the Human Rights Council and Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office at Geneva, Laura Dupuy Lasserre.