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Can ICTs Advance Human Rights?

Shamiela Mir's picture

Can Information and Communication Technology (ICT) effectively promote the implementation of Human Rights? This was the topic of a thought-provoking presentation organized by the World Bank Institute (WBI) together with the Nordic Trust Fund in OPCS, which explores how a Human Rights lens could help inform Bank projects. The presentation on July 17, 2012 was based on a draft report developed as part of ICT4HR project under ICT4Gov program at WBI. Through various case studies, the draft report looks at both the opportunities and the challenges of effectively using ICT to implement human rights. The report focuses on two technologies - social media and mobile phones - and how these technologies can enable public participation in enforcing human rights by making the data collection and dissemination faster, cheaper and more accessible. It explores the means by which people exercise their rights such as Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Assembly and the Right to Participate in Public Affairs. Social Media and new technologies also enable rights by providing access to information, which can then be used to enforce rights (i.e., naming and shaming) and promote social accountability

The presentation featured a few case studies to illustrate this point. For example, in Kenya, citizens were able to alert authorities about electoral discrepancies and problems, such as intimidation, vote buying and acts of violence by SMS during Kenya’s 2010 Constitutional Referendum. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a voice-based communications platform called Freedom Fone allowed women to anonymously access pre-recorded information regarding sexual assaults such as their legal rights and health with a function to request call back. In Dominican Republic, a coalition of organizations was able to enforce the law that requires the government to allocate 4% of its GDP to education through a website with links to social media sites that provided options to post comments and show support. We have also seen around the globe the very powerful role that social media and mobile technologies can play in promoting social accountability and civic engagement. The Green Movement in Iran and the Arab Spring are some of the most impressive examples.

The report also discussed the challenges and risks involved in effectively using ICT for human rights. These are ensuring accuracy of information, inequality due to levels of access and technical literacy, and security concerns. For example in fragile environments, lead author Molly Land stresses “the values of the technology field, a willingness to experiment and to fail, adopt, and iterate, can be in tension with the need to develop considered and reasoned security protocols. In other works, while hacking is an iterative process, security is not.”

The report suggests, though it admits the list is not complete, ways to manage these challenges using ICT: Building a verification mechanism into the activity, establishing security protocols, developing ethical protocols for crowdsourcing in a human rights context, and establishing partnerships with local organizations able to respond to information flow. “This report is very timely as it provides an early framework for how to mitigate the risks associated with ICT mediated citizen participation, an issue that the Open Government movement has not yet given the necessary attention.”, says Boris Weber, Team Leader of the ICT4Gov program.

As one starts to really think about different mechanisms that must go into projects to ensure effective use of ICT, the question remains: is it still cheaper, faster and more accessible? Fact checking of information gathered through ICT may be so large and random that the process may take longer, and be more costly than usual.  Creating partnerships is also a time-consuming process that requires building relationships and trust. Establishing security protocols is also tenuous in an environment where protection of privacy in cyberspace is still work-in-progress.

And, what happens when inaccurate information is put in cyberspace and becomes viral? A good example to illustrate this is the Kony 2012 campaign that sparked a fierce debate over inaccuracy of information and its overly simplistic messages. Some were furious over the misinformation and irresponsibility of the messenger and argued that it may have jeopardized the capture of Joseph Kony in the long-run. Some argued that at least the man was exposed globally. Did the campaign do more damage than good? How do we measure the impact or the negative impact of such campaigns?

How do we measure the real impact of ICT in Human Rights? As social media and new technologies continue to evolve, so will our understanding of their impact on Human Rights.

Photo credit: Janaka Dharmasena via

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