Earlier this month, two members of the Human Rights Foundation’s legal and policy team joined leaders in emerging tech, privacy, policy, activism, and diplomacy at RightsCon 2019 in Tunis. This internationally respected event proved to be a valuable place to network with professionals from different sectors with different points of view on some of today’s most pressing issues: digital security, freedom from censorship and surveillance, and more.
HRF led two sessions at the conference:
On June 12, we led a workshop on submitting petitions to U.N. special procedures. As the Oslo Freedom Forum has expanded, HRF has engaged with more and more grassroots activists, state-level politicians, and regional bodies, and they’ve told us that there is a disconnect between activists and the bodies meant to represent or protect them. So, with this workshop, we decided to take a first step toward bridging that gap.
The workshop offered activists and civil society leaders a crash course on U.N. special procedures, and a deep dive into submitting cases to a specific procedure: the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the only special procedure under the U.N. Human Rights Council that reviews individual complaints (submissions from individuals outside of the U.N.) as a part of its mandate. HRF has submitted 10 cases to this working group so far, highlighting cases from Cuba to Zimbabwe to Vietnam, and 100 percent of the Working Group’s published decisions for these cases have found that the victims’ detentions were arbitrary.
Attendees were engaged and inquisitive, and left feeling empowered to submit cases on their own. And, of course, HRF is always a resource for political prisoners struggling for freedom in authoritarian countries.
On June 14, HRF co-hosted a panel in partnership with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Access Now on the sale of surveillance equipment to authoritarian states. The panel began with short talks from panelists Khalid Ibrahim (executive director of the Gulf Centre) and Megha Rajagopalan (BuzzFeed New correspondent and former OsloFF speaker) who described how authoritarians from China, Saudi Arabia, or other tyrannical states use spyware, face recognition, and other new surveillance tech to (1) target and silence individual dissidents and journalists, and (2) to repress large minority groups or entire populations. Then, we heard from privacy activist Iness Ben Guirat, Access Now Policy Associate Lucie Krahulcova, and U.N. Senior Human Rights Officer Scott Campbell on how to address this issue technically, academically, and politically.
The action-oriented panel discussion and breakout groups produced some useful takeaways and specific suggestions for future action, including:
- Existing international legislation (like the U.N. guiding principles) and future guidelines on tech and human rights are difficult to craft, and difficult to enforce — but they can be an incredibly powerful tool for advocacy.
- Different technologies may need to be regulated in different ways. Determining which pieces of tech need regulation and do pose a threat is an important first step, and provides much-needed nuance.
- “Blacklisting” authoritarian countries is not feasible diplomatically, but other possibilities have been explored at the international level. The European Union, for example, considered rule of law preconditions for the use of surveillance technology. Ultimately, regulations must be “wholesome and consistent.”
- Representatives from the U.N., the E.U., and state governments want more engagement and input from civil society on this topic. If an individual or group wants to engage with the U.N., one great way is to reach out to accredited organizations like Access Now and Article 19 that can comment during sessions.
- There is a critical knowledge gap in technology companies. Tech executives need training and education on the U.N,, human rights, and their existing obligations under international law.
- Local advocacy and political wins can set important precedents and case studies that can inform other countries and even international policy, as has been seen with San Francisco’s ban on facial recognition technology.
- “Naming and shaming” advocacy has been very effective. Tech companies that have been exposed for contributing to human rights abuses have reacted by severing ties with problematic clients, and smaller companies are starting to follow suit. Bad PR makes it costly for companies to engage with authoritarian clients.
At the end of the session, we invited members of the audience to engage with us to turn these ideas and insights into action.
Throughout the conference, HRF was able to meet with a wide range of people who are all deeply committed to advancing human rights and freedom in different ways, whether it be through high-level advocacy, creating technical solutions, investing in projects that advance human rights, or through classic grassroots activism. It was a productive week, and we hope to return next year to once again put authoritarianism at the center of the digital rights conversation.