Written by Remzi Cej, Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, Canada, @remzicej
“My camera is my weapon”. These are the words of Nariman, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank. She recorded her brother being shot by the Israeli Defence Forces during a peaceful protest – sadly he subsequently died. Using the video as her evidence, Nariman is now calling on the Israeli military to investigate and punish the soldiers who shot her brother.
Technology has often treaded the fine line between individual and collective rights – camera surveillance in public spaces, invasive privacy laws that allow for wiretaps, biometric data requirements are some example of what certain countries impose on their citizens and visitors. These all infringe individual rights, but are usually justified under the pretext of national security. The problem worsens when the tools governments use to tackle genuine concerns contribute to further human rights abuses.
In recent years, technology has proven an essential tool for human rights activists from around the world. They have gone from using paper, phone and fax as the primary means of reaching the world, to using web 2.0, e-mail, and social media to communicate their situation to people who are many time zones apart. Being in Germany reminded me of Gutenberg’s great achievement in democratizing access to the written word through the creation of the printed press – in essence, technology has done the same for human rights awareness. For example, petitions can now be completed online and sent to millions of people around the world, as Avaaz continues to do successfully; updates on current human rights situations in different parts of the world can be tweeted within seconds; and, we now hear from activists who find themselves in dangerous situations – such exposure to the challenges activists face around the world brings us closer to the issues they experience, and it also brings us closer to finding the means to help. The communication gap is slowly closing between the disenfranchised and those who can help, as technology facilitates a new form of global empowerment.
One of the biggest concerns of human rights activists’ family and friends is the fear of detention and disappearances by the authorities. What happens if you are detained during a public action? How can the wider human rights community help at a time when activists need it the most?
In the past decade a number of different organizations have been developing digital tools to help activists in difficult situations. Amnesty International’s Panic Button app, which aims to help activists at risk around the world, is currently in development. Once the development phase is over, the app will be tested by regional activist networks. It will allow activists to send distress signals from their mobile phone if they are in a dangerous situation. This prompts activists in the area and around the world to mobilize and provide support through crowdsourcing. For a number of years, Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights project has combined scientific and technological developments to showcase human rights situations around the world.
Other groups have also been active in trying to help activists using technology – The Tor Project has developed a database of internet addresses provided voluntarily by people from across the globe. These ‘volunteers’ donate their web address to someone who may live in a country where international websites may be blocked, i.e. Iran and China. Using Tor, average citizens can access the website by mimicking the IP address of someone living somewhere where those sites are accessible.
Civil Rights Defenders have developed the Natalia Project, which provides human rights activists with unique, GPS-equipped bracelets that broadcast an activists location. If they are detained, or taken to an undisclosed location, the bracelet allows activist networks to see the last reported location. Those who sign up for alerts via the website or via social media subsequently receive an alarm from the activists, if they are in danger.
These are some innovative uses of technology for the safety of human rights activists and for the promotion of human rights. However, what happens when these same resources that activists use to record evidence of wrongdoing and abuse is used against them? What if the effort to record police abuses in a public event results in an activist recording a passerby who is subsequently arrested by the police due to suspicion of participating in the public event? Just as technology can help advance human rights, it can also be manipulated to hinder them – authorities can use e-petitions to intimidate citizens calling for change, they can detain individuals who have joined a Facebook group, and they can arrest citizens who participated in a public protest. Witness, an international organization focused on including video in human rights protection, provides extensive information on safely recording and archiving videos of public events without placing other participants at risk of detention or even worse. In collaboration with YouTube, Witness has recently launched the Human Rights Channel, which serves as a platform for distributing videos from around the world. Since its creation, the Human Rights Channel has promoted election fairness in Togo through video footage of the media crackdown it has featured numerous videos of human rights abuses during the war in Syria, and it has showcased the problem of forced evictions in Haiti. The best part of the Witness/Human Rights Channel efforts is that all of the means to distribute evidence of human rights abuses are easy to use and online.
Human rights activists around the world continue to face danger in their daily work to protect and promote human rights. And yet, fearlessly they march on, despite the risks involved – in the new, technologically interconnected world, we are closer than ever to each other. We can hear about abuses and victories alike within seconds – technology provides major potential for the protection of human rights.