Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement at RightsCon 2022

06 June 2022

Delivered by

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet


RightsCon 2022, June 6 – 10 2022

Video Opening Statement 

Distinguished colleagues,

It is a pleasure to address you today.

These precarious times can be overwhelming - with the ongoing pandemic, unending violent conflicts and growing authoritarian trends across the globe.

We have heard repeatedly that while digital technologies have thrust us toward unprecedented human progress, they also bring with them new challenges in protecting human rights and democracy.

If we are to effectively address these challenges, action must be grounded in people’s ability to engage in shaping the policies that affect their lives. Yet, this “civic space”, the space for everyone to participate both online and offline, is shrinking.

Today, I wish to emphasize how important your work – all of our work, together – is, in order to push back against this trend. Allow me to underscore three areas where I think our concerted efforts can have real impact:

First, we need to urgently strengthen our right to privacy in the digital realm. Companies and States have access to unprecedented amounts of data on people. Digitized communications, and the integration of tracking and surveillance mechanisms into our cities and transportation infrastructures are facilitating surveillance at astounding scale and depth.

A recent report by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties highlighted that advertising technology tracks and shares people’s online usage and their real-world location 178 trillion times each year in the US and Europe alone.

The Pegasus revelations helped lift the veil on the extent of state digital surveillance and its devastating effects, including on the liberty and lives of human rights defenders, journalists, and dissenters.

The surveillance technology industry has gone unchecked for too long. That is why last year, I called for a moratorium on the sale of surveillance tools. Until human rights safeguards are in place, we must work together to stop the export, sale, transfer and use or servicing of surveillance tools.

With increased company tracking and government monitoring of online activity, people need strong tools to protect themselves, including access to virtual private networks. End to end encryption also remains essential to protecting human rights, and those who defend them.

Second, the right to freedom of expression must be preserved online and offline, together with addressing online hate speech and disinformation.

We witness the silencing of journalists and human rights defenders by governments and attempts at silencing by organized online mobs. We see internet shutdowns in all their forms, including targeted efforts against groups and wholesale disruptions at critical moments, such as around elections.

And while the digital public square holds the promise of inclusivity, marginalized people, women, and those expressing dissent, face threats and attacks, pushing those voices further into the shadows.

An increasing number of laws attempt to regulate online communications to prevent harm. But in many cases, due to their overbroad or vague language, these laws can do more damage, further eroding trust in public institutions.

Human rights law requires that restrictions on speech meet the three-part test of necessity, proportionality, and legality. Both states and companies need to be more transparent and accountable regarding their actions relating to online content.

Finally, we must address the digital divide. While advanced economies race towards digital transformation, 3.7 billion, the majority of whom are women, and most in developing countries, remain unconnected. While work is underway to address connectivity, we must ensure that those most in need are not pushed further back. This means joining up our conversations on connectivity and internet shutdowns – recalling that at times, obstacles to digital access are imposed by governments, not by economics.

Distinguished colleagues,

We are at a critical juncture.

And we hold the tools to develop solutions: all efforts should be rooted in human rights, respect democracy and the rule of law. Better regulatory instruments on surveillance technologies and on high-risk artificial intelligence systems are crucial. States should work towards building export control regimes on spyware and strengthening legal frameworks to better protect the right to privacy.

We must insist on transparency and accountability of those that wield power – whether governments or companies, and demand remedies for those adversely impacted.

All this can only happen if we build coalitions across constituencies. Solutions to challenges faced by minorities, women or children, for example, are often debated in silos.

To be effective and sustainable, online regulation should be debated not behind the closed doors of companies or Government offices – but out in the open, bringing different voices to the table.

Too much of the conversation focuses on the developed world, and on the roles of US or European companies and governments. Yet the impact of the digital revolution is global.

Approaches adopted anywhere can become models everywhere.