ICTs and Human Rights Practice (2015)

CGHR Practitioner Paper #0

Ella McPherson (University of Cambridge) 

The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is creating a wealth of new opportunities as well as a variety of new risks for human rights practice. Given the pace of innovation in the development and use of ICTs, our understanding of their impact on human rights lags. This report provides a crucial and in depth look at ICT initiatives and trends across the key human rights practices of prevention, fact-finding, and advocacy, identifying both risks and opportunities.

In prevention, ICTs can be harnessed to protect human rights defenders, to prevent violations in police-civilian interactions, and in data-driven early warning systems and communication-based conflict prevention. That said, ICTs also create new security risks for human rights defenders and can violate the right to privacy. In fact-finding, ICTs afford the spontaneous and solicited participation of civilian witnesses in the production of human rights evidence. Of course, a greater volume and variety of information from unknown and untrained sources creates problems of misinformation and verification, which technology only goes so far to mitigate. In advocacy, ICTs provide new channels for quickly and visibly mobilizing publics, for directly engaging with advocacy targets, and for spreading awareness of human rights. That said, the effects of these new advocacy channels are unclear, and they may imperil categories of human rights and the reputations of human rights organisations.

The report also considers how digital divides and the political economy of ICTs influence the nature, extent, and distribution of these opportunities and risks. In doing so, it outlines a research framework for understanding ICTs and human rights practice to underpin academics’ and practitioners’ assessment, development, and deployment of ICTs for and in the spirit of human rights. An earlier version of this report, prepared for an expert meeting ahead of the June 2015 session of the UN Human Rights Council, informed the thematic report on ICTs and the right to life presented at that session by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.