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High Level Panel Discussion on the occasion of the 47th session of the Human Rights Council
The role of the Human Rights Council in promoting a human rights-based approach to new and emerging technologies


Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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15 June 2021

Madam President,

Excellencies,

Colleagues,

My thanks to the Permanent Missions of Austria and Korea, Brazil, Denmark, Morocco, and Singapore for organizing, along with my Office, this important event to address the role of the Council in addressing challenges and gaps in applying human rights in the technology sector. It also provides a useful opportunity to discuss the Advisory Committee's recent report.

In his Call for Action for Human Rights -- and following up on the recommendations of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation -- Secretary-General Guterres called for the development of a human rights-based framework for the digital space.

Our existing human rights framework provides essential guidance to the use and governance of digital technologies. Only by applying human rights law and honouring the commitments made under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core international human rights treaties, can States hope to fully benefit from the potential of digital technologies.

Equality is one of those commitments we have been failing to implement. Despite the significant benefits of digital technology, half of the world's population is still not even connected to the internet. Disproportionately, they are women and members of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.

Human rights defenders, journalists, and many other creative and constructive voices face oppression when they dare to speak up online. The Internet has often become a space for surveillance, intimidation, and the preparation of violent attacks, in many contexts and across every society.

Some digital corporations benefit from huge impact on public discourse without being bound by human-rights based governance frameworks.

And many governments seem increasingly determined to impose new rules in the digital space, while failing to protect users and their rights. Just in the last few weeks, for example, we have seen authorities in various countries demanding the takedown of Twitter posts or the blocking of websites and services because they were used to criticize the government.

I remind these and other States that criticism – online or offline – is not a crime. It is a necessary element of any vibrant society.

Numerous resolutions of the Human Rights Council have addressed digital issues. Those include the resolutions on New and Emerging Digital Technologies and on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, both of which will again be discussed during the next Council session.

The Council's resolutions on the right to privacy and the safety of journalists constitute essential and landmark guidance. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provides a practical framework and reference point.

Other human rights mechanisms have also contributed vital guidance, including CERD on racial profiling; the CRC on the rights of the child in the digital environment; and the Human Rights Committee on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly online. In addition, an impressive amount of work has been done on digital issues by the Council's Special Procedures.

My Office is fully engaged on this front, through our cooperation with the Human Rights Council and partners across the UN, in collaboration with Member States, tech companies, and civil society. Allow me to share with you a few examples:

We have developed the United Nations Hub for Human Rights and Digital Technology, in follow up to the Secretary-General's Call to Action and RoadMap for Digital Cooperation.

We are now engaged in developing internal-facing due diligence guidance for the UN's own procurement, development, and use of digital technologies, leading efforts for the UN itself to show the example.

Our multistakeholder B-Tech Project provides resources and authoritative guidance for implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the technology space.

Our Office also engages directly with a range of tech companies – in particular social media platforms – to advocate for their practices and policies to be based on human rights law. Key points include increased transparency of decision-making; strengthened accountability; and rights-based content policies.

Excellencies,

My Office will continue to report to the Human Rights Council on these crucial issues. We are currently preparing a new report on the impacts of artificial intelligence on the enjoyment of the right to privacy.

Ensuring that the digital space works to uphold and advance human rights is an essential priority for all of us. 

I look forward to enhancing our collaboration.

Thank you.