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69 Years of Universal Human Rights, but what about Digital Rights?

08/12/17
69 Years of Universal Human Rights, but what about Digital Rights?
69 Years of Universal Human Rights, but what about Digital Rights?

Sunday 10th December will mark 69 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to highlight what the declaration means for people in their everyday lives, UN Human Rights will be launching a year-long campaign in preparation for the 70th anniversary next year. Since its introduction in 1948, the world has changed quite significantly and to a certain extent so has our understanding of what human rights are or what they should be. In particular, the digital age has provided an abundance of new challenges in terms of the human rights discourse.

When discussing human rights in a traditional sense, we distinguish between ‘negative’ freedoms (freedom from…) and ‘positive’ freedoms (freedom to…). One of the ongoing challenges of applying these universally is that various states disagree on which are more important, resulting in a few discrepancies between constitutions. The influence of the internet has brought about the additional challenge that many people now believe that we have a right to access the internet. With the rapid growth of technology, the internet has become ingrained in our daily lives, directly impacting how we access news and information.

Many argue that without protecting the right to access the internet as a human right, we open up the possibility of (and perhaps validate) authoritarian regimes disrupting citizens’ access to the internet, either through censorship or propaganda, or cutting off access completely.

In 2016, the UN agreed and resolved that internet access is to be considered a basic human right. However, others are yet to be convinced and question how this can be implemented, considering the declaration is non-binding. With half of the world still offline at the end of last year, more needs to be done if we are to implement internet access as a basic human right. And education around technology and this issue in particular is key if we are to move forward as a society. For example, we need to consider what “internet access” means. Is it access to a specific digital infrastructure? Information free from censorship? Freedom from surveillance? How do we support this globally?

Amnesty International has supported this initiative by partnering with an online education provider to offer online courses in ‘Human Rights Defenders’ and ‘The Right to Freedom of Expression’, which bring in the debates surrounding human rights in the digital age in the same context as traditional human rights discussion. So, what next? We need to facilitate these debates in our classrooms, lecture halls and government so we can keep abreast of the new challenges and ensure we are raising a new generation of thought leaders, armed with the knowledge and expertise to bring human rights into the 21st Century.

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