On Friday 19 June at the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions presented his thematic report on the potential of information communication technologies (ICTs) in protecting the right to life. The report explored the potential of ICTs in promotion, protection, monitoring and accountability for violations of the right to life, and called on the UN system and other international human rights bodies to “catch up” with rapidly developing innovations in human rights fact-finding and investigations.
The report can be downloaded in the six official languages of the UN. The interactive dialogue with States concerning the report, including Prof. Heyns’ initial presentation to the Council, can be watched via the UNWebTV service.
CGHR have been proudly involved in supporting the work of the Special Rapporteur over several years. In this academic year, the collaboration has focussed on the question of ICTs. A student team coordinated by CGHR Research Associate Dr Ella McPherson assisted in the compilation of material for a discussion document ahead of an Expert Meeting which the Special Rapporteur convened in Cambridge in February.
To accompany the presentation of the report, the Special Rapporteur organised a side event in Geneva, #ICT4HR: Using information and communication technologies to protect human rights. The event took the form of a panel discussion, chaired by CGHR Research Associate Dr Thomas Probert, bringing together experiences from the streets of Bahrain as well as expertise from large human rights NGOs and the ICC. The event was co-sponsored by the International Service for Human Rights, which has written a brief summary of it.
Both the report and the side event underlined the extent to which, while the affordances of ICTs should be embraced, they should not be seen as a panacea. Prof. Heyns also warned that it will be short-sighted not to see the risks: “Those with the power to violate human rights can easily use peoples’ emails and other communications to target them and also to violate their privacy,” he said. Moreover, there is a danger that what is not captured on video is not taken seriously. "We must guard against a mind-set that ‘if it is not digital it did not happen,’” he stressed.
“There is still a long way to go for all of us to understand fully how we can use these evolving and exciting but in some ways also scary new tools to their best effect,” Heyns stated, noting that not all parts of the international human rights community are fully aware of the power and pitfalls of digital fact-finding. He made several recommendations in his report, including that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights appoints a specialist in digital evidence to assist it in making the best use of ICTs.