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UN experts’ study on new technologies and enforced disappearances exposes risks and opportunities

19 September 2023

GENEVA (19 September 2023) – New technologies have an ambivalent relationship with enforced disappearance, UN experts said today.

“On the one hand, new technologies are frequently used to perpetrate and conceal enforced disappearance, to hinder the work of human rights defenders and relatives of disappeared people, and to intimidate or harass them. On the other hand, they can offer cost-effective solutions that have proved useful in locating the disappeared, documenting the crime and promoting accountability,” said the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

In a report to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, the experts expressed concern about the use of Internet shutdowns and directed connectivity disruptions; spyware programmes; targeted and mass surveillance, including gait and facial-recognition; cyber-attacks and Government-sponsored troll factories; and the specious use of technology-related legislation to suppress dissent and go after human rights defenders and relatives of the disappeared.

“Technologies are developing at a rapid pace, and they are often traded and used without the application of human rights due diligence by States and corporations. This occurs in the absence of a sound regulatory framework that takes into account international human rights law, foresees independent oversight, promotes accountability and offers an effective remedy in case of violations,” the experts said.

“Until a human rights-compliant safeguards regime is in place, there shall be a moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, use or servicing of mass surveillance tools, including spyware, facial-recognition and similar programmes,” they said.

The experts underscored that new technologies simultaneously have great potential to search for disappeared individuals and ensure that those responsible for this heinous crime are held accountable.

“New technologies have proved effective in locating disappeared people and gathering evidence of the crime. However, expectations must be realistic: they cannot entirely replace traditional approaches and techniques,” they said.

The experts found that complementarity between traditional and new techniques should be pursued to ensure that access to new technologies does not reproduce or deepen existing digital divide and socio-economic disparities.

“States, corporations, civil society organisations, National Human Rights Institutions, donors and academic institutions shall coordinate and tightly cooperate among themselves,” the experts said. “They have a shared responsibility to ensure that new technologies are developed and used ethically and responsibly within a human rights framework, in order to strengthen their potential, mitigate the existing risks and eradicate misuse,” they said.

The report includes several recommendations addressed to multiple stakeholders. The Working Group will continue studying the matter to develop the presentation of a hypothetical case study illustrating the step-by-step process to investigate a case of enforced disappearance through the use of new technologies to show the corresponding implications, both in terms of advantages and existing obstacles.

The report will be presented and discussed at a side-event scheduled for 27 September 2023, at 10:00 in Room III at Palais des Nations, which can also be followed online.


*The expertsAua Baldé (Chair-Rapporteur), Gabriella Citroni (Vice-Chair), Grażyna Baranowska, Ana Lorena Delgadillo Pérez, Angkhana Neelapaijit, Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.

The experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For additional information and media requests please contact: Mr. Ugo Cedrangolo (+41 (0)22 917 9286 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected].

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) and Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected]).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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