Header image for news printout

Landmark Session: 'Human Rights Heroes and Villains', RightsCon 2019, Tunis

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

12 June 2019

Protocol greetings,
Distinguished participants,
Colleagues, Friends,

I’m delighted to be at RightsCon, and at this session, which honours some of the activists who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to human rights in the digital era.

RightsCon focuses on some of the most complex and challenging technology-related questions facing all human beings in coming years. I would like to highlight the courage, technical skills, and profound commitment of many individuals, who are making a real difference.

We need heroes, and I applaud all those who are working for greater protection of human rights, in a digital world, which has its dark side.

Technology needs to be about progress. It should mean more freedom, well-being and dignity for everyone. The recipients of today's awards come from very diverse paths – and to me, that suggests that all of us can become heroes, we can all contribute to charting that way forward.

There is no time to lose. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I’m concerned that digital tools have already fuelled a range of human rights violations and abuses. Worse could be coming.

We’re here at RightsCon, to try to turn that around, and ensure that digital tools don’t overpower our human rights – and instead, empower us all to enjoy them.

I am eager to celebrate technology’s potentially transformative impact on the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development –a roadmap to human rights progress for us all.

Unfortunately, across a very wide range of issues and geographies, digital tools are being used to lock in serious threats to a broad range of human rights – and human rights activists.

The right to privacy – a keystone for a safe and open digital ecosystem – is under attack from many sides. We're seeing massive increases in surveillance of human rights defenders, journalists, oppressed minorities and dissenting voices.

Artificial intelligence and an increased reliance on hacking aggravates this situation. Additionally, a growing number of measures are undermining the ability of human rights defenders to encrypt their communications and maintain anonymity. These include poorly conceived laws that target end-to-end encryption, weakening the protection of anonymity, as well as bans on VPN applications.

All the heroes we are honouring today have defended human rights, including the right to privacy online. Their work has saved lives, and has contributed to protecting spaces in which people can freely raise their voices and participate in decisions.

But this vital task is also a very challenging one. We need more heroes – people who may not realise how much positive impact they can achieve. People who may be asking themselves, is there somewhere we can go, to look for solutions that protect and promote people’s ability to take part in society, and the transparency and accountability of institutions?

Human rights are universal: they match the worldwide scale of these problems. They also focus on the individual: they fit the tricky, detailed kinds of impact that we’re looking at. It has taken decades to draw up international human rights laws and treaties, out of principles and traditions from across our planet and our human history. Human rights law brings with it an unparalleled weight of consideration, specificity and legitimacy. And States have already committed to applying it.

The growing magnitude of digital disruption means that States and businesses need to step up fast and meet their responsibilities. Some State regulation will clearly be necessary to keep digital spaces open, inclusive, safe and just. It needs to be devised and implemented in line with the rule of law: all of us need to be at the table – activists, practitioners and human rights lawyers -- to ensure that policies and regulations are focused on greater rights and dignity, and not just greater control.

Still, we cannot rely only on States. As increasing numbers of technology companies try to work towards more principled outcomes, they should be turning to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide a globally recognized and workable framework for business operations of every kind.

My Office is committed to working in consultation with civil society, companies, foundations and governments to translate these principles into authoritative guidance for the tech sector and regulators alike.

I greatly appreciate that Access Now has chosen to organize this edition of RightsCon in a country with a remarkable legal tradition of respect for equality, and tolerance for different religious beliefs.

I hope this heritage can inspire in us the conviction and energy we will need to ensure new technologies drive greater freedom, rights and development for all.

Thank you.