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Human Rights Council holds panel discussion on emerging digital technologies ; begins interactive dialogue with special rapporteur on internally displaced persons

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8 July 2020

8 July 2020

The Human Rights Council this morning held a panel discussion on the impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights, and began an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, opening the panel discussion, said digital technologies increasingly permeated all aspects of all lives and societies, transforming health care, education, work, human rights activism, political participation, development and virtually all sectors of every economy.

Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister for Communications of Ghana, speaking via video message, noted that the Government of Ghana had prioritised data security, and as part of cyber security interventions had made child online protection a major plank of intervention to reduce the impact that that technology had on children’s lives and their privacy.

Changrok Soh, Member of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, speaking via video message, emphasised that it was an oversimplification to argue that technologies were inert or neutral objects and that negative consequences were purely the result of humans misusing them. Further, the impact of technological systems on human rights could not be understood in isolation.

María Paz Canales, Executive Director, Derechos Digitales, speaking via video message, noted that technologies had human rights consequences. Those consequences were part of their whole life cycle from design to implementation and massive scale adoption in different social, economic, political and cultural settings.

Steve Crown, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Microsoft, speaking via video message, stated that all should commit themselves to using digital tools to improve the human condition. But all must act responsibly, guarding against misuses. He proposed reimagining the use of human rights impact assessments and the practice of human rights due diligence.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasised that the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed all into the digital world, but also highlighted the digital divide, as individuals and groups without access were left further behind, especially those in developing countries and those belonging to already marginalised groups. Emphasising the organic and mutually reinforcing nature of the right to peaceful assembly and the right to self-determination, some speakers urged their protection in the digital realm.

Speaking in the interactive discussion were Sweden on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Denmark on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Germany on behalf of a group of countries, Republic of Korea on behalf of a group of countries, Vanuatu on behalf of a group of countries, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, UN Women, Germany, United Nations Children’s Fund, Thailand, Qatar, China, Panama, Russian Federation, Pakistan, Senegal, Venezuela, India (video message), Australia, Iran, Mexico and Indonesia.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor : World Jewish Congress, Minority Rights Group, Society for Threatened Peoples, Amnesty International (video message), HelpAge International (video message) and International Institute for Rights and Development Geneva.

The Council then started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said persons with disabilities faced inequalities and heightened protection risks due to forced displacement. Due to functional limitations, poor health, loss of support, reluctance to leave their own communities or because they could not afford to leave, persons with disabilities were often unable to flee, leaving them exposed to violence or left to survive on their own. Ms. Jimenez-Damary also noted that the group was not homogenous, and often faced multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination based on other grounds, such as gender, age, ethnicity, religion, group affiliation and displacement itself.

In the interactive dialogue, speakers emphasised that internally displaced persons were often some of the most vulnerable, while persons with disabilities represented those left furthest behind among this already marginalised group. Persons on the move, and especially those with disabilities, were also some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Speakers noted the report’s conclusion that millions of persons with disabilities were displaced by climate change every year.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue were the European Union, Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group, Malaysia, Fiji (video message), Russian Federation, Djibouti, State of Palestine, Libya, China, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Armenia, Philippines (video message), Mexico, Indonesia, Botswana, Morocco, Colombia, El Salvador, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, Sovereign Order of Malta (video message), Georgia, Serbia, Norway, Niger, South Sudan, Myanmar and Denmark.

The Council will next meet at 1 p.m. this afternoon to hold a panel discussion on the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change. It will then conclude its interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons will resume at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 9 July.

Panel Discussion on the Impacts, Opportunities and Challenges of New and Emerging Digital Technologies with Regard to the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Documentation

The Council has before it the Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 11 July 2019 on New and emerging digital technologies and human rights (A/HRC/RES/41/11).

Opening Statement

NADA AL-NASHIF, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said digital technologies increasingly permeated all aspects of all lives and societies, transforming health care, education, work, human rights activism, political participation, development and virtually all sectors of every economy. It was becoming a cliché to say how transformative they were, serving as a double-edged sword that may either lead to collective human flourishing – or to collective human demise. But that made it no less true. Furthermore : how these technologies were developed, used, and governed would be crucial in determining which way that balance tipped.
The world needed urgent guidance to shape governance in these and other areas where the use of digital technology was rapidly spreading and influencing societies, rights, and human agency itself. To help companies and Governments address the daunting challenges they also bring, the human rights framework was essential. In parallel, this Council and its mandate holders had a determinant role to play in depicting how human rights law, standards and principles applied in the digital space. An inclusive, multi-stakeholder approach would be essential in the efforts of this Council and other fora. A remarkable example of such an approach was the one adopted by the Secretary-General in the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and his recent roadmap for implementing the Panel’s recommendations.

Statements by the Panellists

URSULA OWUSU-EKUFUL, Minister for Communications of Ghana, speaking via video message, stated that emerging digital technologies presented untold opportunities and opened up the world, but also presented enormous challenges. The Government of Ghana had prioritised data security, and as part of its cyber security interventions had made child online protection a major plank of intervention to reduce the impact that that technology had on children’s lives and their privacy. COVID-19 had accelerated the spread and use of technology, as Ghana facilitated contact tracing using geo-fencing and geo-location technology through mobile devices. At the same time, it was important to be mindful and not build “Big Brother” States, thus when designing all these interventions, individual liberties and privacy also needed to be protected. In this regard, international norms, principles and conventions, particularly in terms of personal data protection and cyber security, were of utmost significance. As such, Ghana’s data protection laws were aligned to the data protection regulations of the European Union. The world could not subsume human rights on the altar of digital technology ; it required a delicate balancing act, but it was doable.

CHANGROK SOH, Member of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, speaking via video message, said that it was an oversimplification to argue that technologies were inert or neutral objects and that negative consequences were purely the result of humans misusing them. Further, the impact of technological systems on human rights could not be understood in isolation. The problem was not being caused by one type of technology but by broad waves of innovation sweeping across many different fields of human knowledge. Thus, the Advisory Committee’s report emphasised a holistic approach to human rights issues associated with new technologies. Instead of just looking at the hardware—like drones or CCTV cameras— the report also emphasised the need to look at how technologies function in decision-making and governance structures. More concerted efforts were required to fill in the conceptual and operational gaps of the current human rights framework. The traditional human rights treaties, documents, and practices had not yet fully adapted to the digital age. The gaps in the existing human rights framework could be best tackled through a holistic approach consisting of three pillars : holistic understanding of technology ; holistic approach to human rights ; and holistic governance and regulatory efforts.

MARIA PAZ CANALES, Executive Director, Derechos Digitales, speaking via video message, noted that technologies had human rights consequences. Those consequences were part of their whole life cycle from design to implementation and massive scale adoption in different social, economic, political and cultural settings. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more pertinent than ever for the Council and the General Assembly to recognise that a lack of access to affordable and reliable technologies and services remained a critical challenge. Emerging technologies’ design, deployment and regulation were fundamentally impacted by uneven opportunities of participation from less developed countries and traditionally marginalised populations. As noted by the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation : “Digital technologies provide new means to advocate, defend and exercise human rights, but they can also be used to suppress, limit and violate human rights.” At the same time, as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights highlighted recently, the implementation of new and emerging technologies by States in welfare was “not the inevitable result of scientific progress, but instead reflect[ed] political choices made by humans”.

STEVE CROWN, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Microsoft, speaking via video message, said the greater a digital technology’s power for good, the greater the opportunity for its misuse. There was a need to acknowledge this tension. States should commit themselves to using digital tools to improve the human condition. But they must act responsibly, guarding against misuses. Mr. Crown proposed reimagining the use of human rights impact assessments and the practice of human rights due diligence. Expressing strong support for the practice of human rights due diligence, having seen its value first-hand in his work at Microsoft, Mr. Crown suggested applying human rights due diligence not just to companies, who bear the responsibility to respect human rights, but to governments who bear the higher duty to protect human rights. A new model of twenty-first century multi-stakeholder engagements was needed to address challenges. The world needed inclusive, coordinated, sustained, and rights-respecting partnerships that broke down old silos. Perhaps what was most needed was to embrace humans’ dependence on one another, grounding themselves in the fact that all were deeply inter-connected and shared a common fate.

Discussion

Speakers emphasised that the COVID-19 pandemic had pushed the world into the digital world, but also highlighted the digital divide, as individuals and groups without access were left further behind, especially those in developing countries and those belonging to already marginalised groups. At the same time, the pandemic had also revealed the potential of new technologies to promote human rights, such as in the protection of confidential communications. Given this dual potential, technology companies were important partners in the process of ensuring that emerging technologies leaned more towards protection, rather than violation, of human rights. The right to privacy was vital to ensuring the protection of other rights. Multiple speakers inquired about the best ways the Council could facilitate better communication between all stakeholders, including governments, international organizations and the private sector. Gender inequalities in access to technologies, and the skills to use them, existed in every country regardless of development status, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the situation, especially with regard to leaving small businesses, which were more likely to be owned by women, further behind. Civil society speakers noted that misleading information about the coronavirus as well as anti-Semitism, misogynistic, racist and homophobic speech thrived in the online space during the COVID-19 pandemic. The human cost of making new technologies should not be neglected, as speakers brought up the labour of children in mines used for the production of electronics.

Speakers said it was wrong to assume that new digital technologies automatically created new human rights such as the right to access to the Internet and the right to online anonymity. Noting that the shift to remote working arrangements had laid bare mankind’s utter dependence on information and communication technology, some speakers asked the panellists how they perceived the role of State and non-State actors in upholding human rights online. The use of new technologies to stoke hatred and violence was concerning. Emphasising the organic and mutually reinforcing nature of the right to peaceful assembly and the right to self-determination, some speakers urged their protection in the digital realm. Others called for adequate cross-border legislative coordination. It was worrying that States around the world were using digital technologies to deny citizens human rights and freedoms and prevent participation in democratic processes. Speakers flagged the use of facial recognition technology and risks posed by the related collection and storage of biometric data. Such technologies’ performance was poorer for certain ethnicities, generating more false positives where people of colour were concerned.

Concluding Remarks

URSULA OWUSU-EKUFUL, Minister for Communications of Ghana, speaking via video message in concluding remarks, expressed gratitude for the insightful comments, noting that States needed to provide critical digital skills for all to ensure that everyone could participate in the new normal. Social media companies and big technology giants needed to cooperate with States, big and small. She concluded by calling for a new sort of Geneva Convention to protect all from the negative effects of technology.

CHANGROK SOH, Member of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, speaking via video message in concluding remarks, referred those present to the Advisory Committee’s report, and said the future was coming faster because of COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic had fostered a wider use of technologies, but also brought human rights concerns related to their use to the fore. In this context, a holistic approach was important. Human rights experts needed to learn more about new technologies.

MARIA PAZ CANALES, Executive Director, Derechos Digitales, speaking via video message in concluding remarks, said that regarding best practices in terms of compliance of new technologies with human rights standards, it was important to continue working within the existing framework of human rights assessment. This framework should also be implemented in governments’ decision- and policy-making processes. One of the key elements of assessment was the need to care about context - the way technologies affected women and girls, minorities and other marginalized populations.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on Persons with disabilities in the context of internal displacement (A/HRC/44/41).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on the Visit to Iraq (A/HRC/44/41/Add.1).

Presentation of Reports by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons

CECILIA JIMENEZ-DAMARY, Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons, talking about her activities, said she had continued to provide guidance to a multi-stakeholder endeavour that she had convened during the twentieth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. This initiative had triggered many positive changes at the national and local levels. Promoting the Guiding Principles was a goal of many of her activities. Ms. Jimenez-Damary congratulated El Salvador, which she visited in 2017, for its adoption of a national law on internally displaced persons early this year. With the International Institute for Humanitarian Law, she continued to co-host the San Remo courses on Internally Displaced Persons Law and Policy for government authorities. The African Union had declared 2019 as the Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons and therefore a particular focus for the mandate was the promotion of the Kampala Convention. Ms. Jimenez-Damary congratulated Somalia and South Sudan as new States parties to the Kampala Convention, and Ethiopia for its recent ratification. She continued to participate as a standing invitee to the UN inter-agency standing committee on internally displaced persons and worked closely with the new high-level panel on internal displacement established by the Secretary-General. In more recent times, she advocated for the rights of internally displaced persons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turning to her thematic report on persons with disabilities in the internal displacement context, the Special Rapporteur noted that the World Health Organization estimated that about 15 per cent of the world’s population had a disability. A rough estimate would translate that to around 6 million internally displaced persons with disability. In forced displacement contexts, an even higher percentage was expected due to increased risks of injuries, lack of access to quality medical services and the creation of new barriers. Persons with disabilities continued to be considered primarily as recipients of aid, and their agency, as well as the agency of their representative organizations as critical stakeholders in internal displacement situations, had to be recognised. Persons with disabilities faced inequalities and heightened protection risks due to forced displacement. Due to functional limitations, poor health, loss of support, reluctance to leave their own communities or because they could not afford to leave, persons with disabilities were often unable to flee, leaving them exposed to violence or left to survive on their own. Ms. Jimenez-Damary also noted that the group was not homogenous, and often faced multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination based on other grounds, such as gender, age, ethnicity, religion, group affiliation and displacement itself.

Regarding her mission to Iraq, Ms. Jimenez-Damary said that the Government was taking important measures to promote returns, such as new schemes to support the voluntary return of internally displaced persons by financial grants, compensation for damaged or destroyed houses, and the Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace and the governorate returns committees. Premature, coerced and forced returns were also reported, especially in the context of camp closures and consolidations, and she called on the Government to ensure that returns were safe, informed, voluntary and dignified. Particular groups required special attention as certain ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, for example, had suffered enormous losses and violations and many of them still lived in displacement, including the Yazidis. There could be no true recovery possible in Iraq without addressing the human rights of internally displaced persons.

Statement by Concerned Country

Iraq, speaking as a concerned country, said the Government had provided facilitations to the Special Rapporteur, noting that she had hailed positives steps taken by Iraq. However, the Special Rapporteur had not taken into account Iraq’s reservations and observations before issuing the report officially and presenting it to the Council. The Council’s work should be based on cooperation rather than unverified reports that did not reflect the Government’s cooperation and efforts. Thus, Iraq had requested that its observations be annexed to the report. Iraq regretted that terrorism was not mentioned in the report as a root cause of displacement, even though Iraq had been combatting terrorism on behalf of the world. The Government provided all kinds of support to internally displaced persons despite the economic challenges it faced. The mandate should describe the situation and limit itself to internal displacement issues. Iraq continued to support the Council and its mechanisms, and was endeavouring to find durable solutions to the root causes of displacement.

Interactive Dialogue
Speakers emphasised that internally displaced persons were often some of the most vulnerable, while persons with disabilities represented those left furthest behind among this already marginalised group, welcoming the focus of the thematic report. Persons on the move, and especially those with disabilities, were also some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Speakers noted the report’s conclusion that millions of persons with disabilities were displaced by climate change every year. Persons with disabilities must participate in all stages of design and implementation of policies that affected them, as speakers also stated that policies must be data-driven. Long-term solutions to the needs of internally displaced persons with disabilities were required, as the practicality and usability of the report’s recommendations, especially for States, were praised by the speakers. More regional and global commitment and financial resources should be committed to address the multi-dimensional causes of displacement crises. Deep-rooted causes of displacement had to also be considered for every specific situation in order to be able to provide long-term durable solutions. Speakers also brought up the importance of addressing displacement caused by both conflicts and disasters, noting the specific characteristics of each dimension. The Government of Iraq was commended by speakers for having taken measures to address internal displacement, displaying the cooperation among the various levels of government, and State efforts to support Yazidi women were welcomed.

Interim Remarks

CECILIA JIMENEZ-DAMARY, Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons, said the report on Iraq was based on meetings held during the visit and documents gathered through various sources, including of course the Government of Iraq, and the information it had provided had been reflected in the report. She called on donors and the international community to continue providing support to Iraq. Regarding best practices, it was important to integrate the humanitarian aid, development and peace nexus in developing programmes that benefitted internally displaced persons with disabilities. Assisting countries was part and parcel of her mandate, she stated.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers drew attention to the factors that had led to the spread of COVID-19 amongst internally displaced persons. Describing measures put in place in their respective countries or programmes, speakers touted initiatives such as creating a ministry of humanitarian affairs, providing psychosocial care to internally displaced persons, financial assistance schemes benefiting those who had disabilities, and giving them priority access to jobs and housing. To better address the need of internally displaced persons with disabilities, they called for increased attention and engagement on the part of international cooperation. Speakers expressed support for the United Nations high-level panel on internal displacement and said they looked forward to its recommendations. They urged the elaboration of responses aligned with the Global Compact for Refugees that included internally displaced persons.

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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