Technologies x Human Rights: repercussions, downsides, and benefits

On Tuesday April 19th, from 19:00 to 20:30, Amnesty The Hague and L.S.A. Custodia – the study association for Security Studies and Crisis and Security Management students of Leiden University – co-hosted a panel discussion on Human Rights (HR) and Technology.

The event took place in the Leiden University College Auditorium and included three panellists: Dr. Barrie Sander, Dr. Tatiana Tropina, and postdoctoral researcher Fabio Cristiano. They all are specialists in different domains which were relevant for the discussion: Dr. Sander focuses on international criminal and human rights law, as well as the intersection between technology and international law; Dr. Tropina works on cybersecurity and cybercrime; and F. Cristiano is particularly interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The panel started with some basic definitions and eventually deep-dived into the benefits and downsides of technologies – mainly devices and platforms connected to the Internet – with regard to HR as well as the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The first terms to be defined were those of digital technologies and Human Rights. The former can be approached in three different ways, argued Dr. Sander. First, through a layer-based lens: digital technologies as composed of several layers interacting one with another. These layers are physical (the infrastructure allowing the digital world to exist), logical (the software, protocols and browsers), informational (the content existing within digital spheres), and social (the people, states, and institutions interacting within and outside of the digital domain). The second possible approach is actor-based. Here, as the digital world is uniquely decentralised and transnational,there is a scene of struggle over control: therefore, this perspective focuses on the different actors and their quest for power. Finally, the last approach looks at ideologies and narratives. This concerns the balance between freedom and social harm within digital spheres. Despite the variety of approaches one can choose from, Dr. Sander rightly noted that framing digital technologies in one way or another is always a political choice.

After the definition of digital technologies, Dr. Sander defined Human Rights in three different ways. The first perspective of HR as a set of laws. It is the legal regime building the concept on a national and international level. Another perspective is of a globalised movement: HR become a conversation between dominant and dissident voices on a worldwide scale. Finally, Dr. Sanders argued that HR are also a universalizing mode of claims-making; i.e., one can use HR as a way to require something. Through this perspective, HR enact politics of accountability and are a tool for different actors.

From these two essential concepts, the panellists moved to the challenges linked to digital technologies with regard to HR. For instance, F. Cristiano highlighted the issue of technological determinism. He argued that, for many, access to technologies and the digital sphere signifies a better life as well as a certain respect for HR. However, for Cristiano, this is not the case. According to him, connected people are highly vulnerable. He mentioned the case of some authoritarian states forcing connection upon their citizens as a way to control them and spot possible activists. Supporting this claim, Dr. Tropina mentioned the problem of preventive policy through which Artificial Intelligence is used at the ends of profiling. In that scenario, algorithms are programmed to decide who might be a criminal; not too surprisingly, these algorithms often present racist biases, i.e., people of colour will more easily be considered criminals in comparison to white people. Additionally, she mentioned the issue of censorship and control of speech that is actually facilitated by digital technologies. She argued that governments were asking online platforms to block certain content, consequently restricting freedom of speech. Moreover, according to her, the Internet had never existed as an entity free from  state influence. All of these arguments were crucial elements in analysing the downsides of digital technologies in the field of HR.

However, the panellists also mentioned some benefits coming from digital technologies and the Internet. Dr. Sander mentioned the stream of evidence of international crimes available online. These images and testimony enable investigators to document crimes and give them access to the events happening in certain areas. Still, he highlighted a potential issue of bias of  who has access to the internet and which pieces of information are algorithmically promoted or erased. 

Another advantage, according to Dr. Tropina, is that digital technologies can be a tool to fight against discrimination. She argued that encryption can help many to safely communicate and that, despite governmental control, it is not possible to go over every communication, allowing some messages to reach their destination. Consequently, technologies enable coordination and organisation of protests. Finally, the main advantage of digital technologies with regard to HR was argued to be the denunciation of crimes committed by authoritarian regimes.

After this general discussion on the intertwinement of digital technologies and HR, the conversation focused a bit more on the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The speakers also took some time to answer students’ questions concerning topics such as social media, as a potential challenge for state sovereignty and private actors’ interests. Overall, the discussion was really enriching and, thanks to the panellists’ clear explanations, it was truly easy to follow and understand.

by Lu  




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